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Series editors: Jonathan Barnes, Université de Paris IV — Sorbonne 
andA.A. Long, University ofCalifornia, Berkeley 



Seneca's Letters to Lucilius are a rich source of information about 
ancient Stoicism, an influential work for early modern philosophers, and 
a fascinating philosophical document in their own right. This selection 
of the letters aims to include those which are of greatest philosophical 
interest, especially those which highlight the debates between Stoics 
and Platonists or Aristotelians in the first century AD, and the issue, 
still important today, of how technical philosophical enquiry is related 
to the various purposes for which philosophy is practised. In addition 
to examining the philosophical content of each letter, Brad Inwood's 
commentary discusses the literary and historical background of the letters 
and to their relationship with other prose works by Seneca. 

Seneca is the earliest Stoic author for whom we have access to a large 
number of complete works, and these works were highly influential in 
later centuries. He was also a politically influential advisor to the Roman 
emperor Nero and a celebrated author of prose and verse. His philosophical 
acuity and independence of mind make his works exciting and challenging 
for the modern reader. 

Brad Inwood is Professor of Classics and Philosophy at the University 
of Toronto. 


Alcinous: The Handbook of Platonism 
John Dillon 

Epictetus: Discourses, Book i 
Robert Dobbin 

Galen: On the Therapeutic Method, Books I and II 
R. J. Hankinson 

Porphyry: Introduction 
Jonathan Barnes 

Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters 
Brad Inwood 

Sextus Empiricus: Against the Ethicists 
Richard Bett 

Sextus Empiricus: Against the Grammarians 
David Blank 



Translated with an 
Introduction and Commentary by 






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For my parents 


In the course of my work on this book I have incurred more debts than I can 
fully recall, let alone acknowledge here. It is a genuine pleasure to thank, 
first and foremost, the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural 
Sciences for their support during a sabbatical leave in 2004-5. Without 
the respite and stimulus provided by that unique institution this book 
would never have been completed. I am also very grateful to the Canada 
Research Chair program of the Canadian government and to my friends 
and colleagues at the University of Toronto for invaluable and unstinting 
support. I owe a great deal to the generous and careful work of my research 
assistants in the Department of Classics, Vicki Ciocani and Emily Fletcher. 
My initial work on Seneca's letters was encouraged by an invitation from 
the ancient philosophy group at Cambridge University to a workshop on 
Seneca's letters in May 2001 . The discussion at that workshop contributed 
a great deal to several of the commentaries in this book. Later, students 
in two of my graduate seminars (in 2002 and 2005) at the University 
of Toronto served as willing guinea pigs and ingenious collaborators. A 
keen group of graduate students at New York University provided helpful 
feedback on several letters during a series of visits in 2002; I am grateful 
to Phillip Mitsis for the invitation to NYU and for his encouragement and 
advice on Seneca over many years. Tony Long has been both supportive 
of and patient about this project for a very long time. His acute comments 
and those of his fellow series editor Jonathan Barnes have improved the 
commentary and translation at many points; no doubt I should have taken 
their advice more consistently. David Sedley's work on the relationship 
between Stoic physics and ethics in Seneca's work (especially in his 
article 'Stoic Metaphysics at Rome', Sedley 2005) has been a valuable 
source of stimulus. The need to respond to John Cooper's challenging 
discussion 'Moral Theory and Moral Improvement: Seneca' (Cooper 
2004) provoked many fruitful lines of enquiry. The ancient philosophy 
group at the University of Chicago has done a great deal for the study 
of Seneca during the time when this book was under construction (not 
least by organizing a key conference in April 2003) and their confidence in 
the value of Senecan studies in a contemporary philosophical setting has 
fostered a great deal of work by many people from which I have been able 
to benefit. 


Some commentaries have benefitted from work on papers originally 
written for oral presentation and since published separately. The com- 
mentary on Letter 66 is intimately connected to a paper given at the 
Universities of Buffalo, British Columbia, and Alberta, 'Reason, Ration- 
alization and Happiness'; it now appears as chapter 9 of Reading Seneca 
(Inwood 2005). The commentary on Letter 120 began as a sketch for 
'Getting to Goodness', delivered to the Princeton Ancient Philosophy 
Colloquium and at the University of Pittsburgh and now published as 
chapter 10 of Reading Seneca. The commentary on Letter 87 has been 
enriched by discussion of an unpublished paper presented at Cornell 
University, the University of Arizona, and UC Santa Barbara. 

I owe a particularly concrete debt of gratitude to Margaret Graver, who 
subjected the penultimate draft of my translation to an exacting scrutiny. 
Her influence has saved me from many errors and infelicities and I have 
often accepted her suggestions for better wording; the remaining blunders 
are my own fault. Margaret also read an early version of the commentaries 
with a critical eye; her comments and suggestions have improved my 
comment on almost every letter. 

It is no mere cliché to say that without the encouragement, advice, and 
loving support of my wife, Niko Scharer, I would not have been able to 
write this book. An even older debt is owed to my parents, Marg and Bill 
Inwood. For many decades they have provided a wonderful education, 
both moral and intellectual. My brothers and I had the privilege of growing 
up in a household where critical enquiry, teaching, intellectual challenge, 
and a passion for fairness were in the fabric of daily life. It has taken me 
a long time to see how precious a gift our parents gave us. Humbly, I 
dedicate this book to them. 


Introduction xi 

Abbreviations and Conventions xxv 


Letter 58 3 

Letter 65 10 

Letter 66 15 

Letter 71 25 

Letter 76 33 

Letter 85 40 

Letter 87 48 

Letter 106 56 

Letter 113 59 

Letter 117 65 

Letter 118 72 

Letter 119 76 

Letter 120 79 

Letter 121 85 

Letter 122 90 

Letter 123 95 

Letter 124 99 


Group 1 (Letters 58, 65, 66) 107 

Letter 58 111 

Letter 65 136 

Letter 66 155 


Group 2 (Letters 71 and 76) 182 

Letter 71 183 

Letter 76 200 

Group 3 (Letters 85 and 87) 218 

Letter 85 220 

Letter 87 239 

Group 4 (Letters 106, 113 and 117) 261 

Letter 106 261 

Letter 113 272 

Letter 117 288 

Group 5 (Letters 118-24) 306 

Letter 118 306 

Letter 119 315 

Letter 120 322 

Letter 121 332 

Letter 122 346 

Letter 123 355 

Letter 124 361 

Bibliography 378 

Index Locorum 385 

Genera l Index 40 1 


Seneca's Life and Works 

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca the Younger, was a 
complex figure. At some point between 4 and 1 bc at Corduba in 
Roman Spain, he was born into a prosperous and prominent provin- 
cial Roman family. His father, Seneca the Elder, was an important 
literary figure in Rome itself, famous as the author of the Controversi- 
ae and Suasoriae, compilations of rhetorical declamations by the most 
famous speakers of the day. Seneca the Younger was the middle of 
three sons; while his older brother had a successful if convention- 
al political career leading to a provincial governorship, the youngest 
son lived a private life and did not achieve senatorial rank. Seneca 
the Younger took an early interest in philosophy, oratory, and liter- 
ature and over the course of a long career rose to become a seni- 
or adviser to the emperor Nero and the most prominent literary 
figure of his generation, publishing extensively in both prose and 

Seneca's early life is difficult to document, although his career becomes 
easier to track after he was forced into exile in ad 41 owing to some sort 
of court intrigue. 1 He was recalled to Rome and political influence in 
ad 49. For readers of this volume, the most important facts are his early 
interest in philosophy, his lifelong commitment to philosophical study and 
writing, and his determination to combine those interests with a long and 
active political career as well as a major role as a prominent literary figure. 
He was the author of many tragedies (whose relationship to philosophy 
is a controversial issue) and a famous orator; his satirical work on the 
emperor Claudius, the Apocolocyntosis, is yet another demonstration of his 

Seneca's influence at Nero's court lasted for more than a decade, but 
waned as the character of the emperor and his regime deteriorated. Having 
withdrawn from public life in the period between ad 62 and 64, Seneca 
was eventually forced into committing suicide in the spring of 65 because 

1 The best account of Seneca's life and background is still Griffin 1992: part I. See also 
Inwood 2005: ch. 1. 


of the emperor's suspicion that Seneca was involved with a conspiracy 
against him. 

The chronology of many of Seneca's works is debatable, although 
Griffin 1992, Appendix A is a reliable guide. The Letters, however, are 
securely datable to the period after ad 62 when Seneca, then in his mid- 
sixties and at the end of a long career, was in retirement. This setting 
for the composition of the Letters is often relevant to their tone and 

The Nature of Seneca's letters 2 

It is now widely agreed that Seneca's letters in their present form, whatever 
their relationship might have been to a real correspondence, are creations 
of the writer's craft. 3 Like the dialogues of Plato, Seneca's letters create an 
atmosphere of interpersonal philosophical exchange, with the difference 
that the medium of this exchange is not face-to-face conversation but 
intimate correspondence between friends. 4 The contributions to this 
conversation of Lucilius, a long-time friend of Seneca's, must be inferred 
from what Seneca says to him, but as all readers of the letters have 
recognized, the assumption of a dialogue between the two friends is 
an important factor shaping the way the letters are meant to work for 
readers. 5 For the most part the letters function as independent works 
of philosophical literature and there is little reason to suppose that 
readers of them were expected to have read the rest of Seneca's works, 
and almost certainly not his dramas. In commenting on them, though, 
a certain amount of comparison with his other philosophical works is 

2 More detailed discussion of the issues raised here is given in 'The Importance of Form 
in the Letters of Seneca the Younger 1 in Morrison and Morel, forthcoming. Recent studies 
from which I have benefitted are Wilson 1987, and 2001, and Teichert 1990. 

3 Note the promise of literary immortality to Lucilius at 21.5 (Letter 21, section 5; 
for reference conventions in this book, see below pp. xxiii, xxv). See the discussion by 
Griffin 1992, Appendix B 4. For a generous survey of earlier views see Mazzoli 1989. 
More particularly, see Leeman 1951, 1953; Abel 1981; Cancik 1967: 53—4; and chapter 1 of 
Margaret Graver' s unpublished dissertation (1996), Therapeutic Reading and Seneca 's Moral 

4 See Teichert 1990: 71—2. 

5 Teichert (1990: 71—2) points out that the one-sidedness of the conversation between 
Seneca the letter-writer and his silent partner Lucilius encourages a greater engagement on 
the part of the reader, who can play both the role of reader and of recipient of the letters, 
being addressed by the author in both modes. I am, however, sceptical about Teichert's 
supposition that the author's philosophical experience is meant to be shaped by the nature 
of the correspondence. As author Seneca is surely more in Control than that. 


Other essential facts about the letters can be summarized quickly. 6 
Despite appearances, our corpus of letters is significantly incomplete; 
originally there were more than the twenty books which now survive; an 
excerpt from a letter on style is preserved by Aulus Gellius {Gel. 12.2) 
from Book 22. Among other things, this excerpt confirms that literary 
themes remained important in later books of the letters; the appearance 
in our twenty-book collection of an accelerating emphasis on 'tough' 
philosophical themes might to some extent be misleading. Furthermore, 
the collection we do have circulated in at least two volumes in late antiquity 
(Letters 1-88 and 89-124). The faet that the collection came to circulate 
in separate components in antiquity is significant for understanding its 
structure. L. D. Reynolds 7 once suggested that the incompleteness at the 
end of our collection might be the result of an early loss of one entire 
volume of letters. But it is also possible that small groups of letters have 
been lost within the spån of our transmitted collection, and the volume join 
between 88 and 89 would be a particularly likely location for such a loss. 8 
The letters are not alone in having been maimed; the Natural Questions 
also suffered severe damage early in the history of its transmission. 9 

The incompleteness of our collection is significant when we consider the 
issue of the internal articulation of the letters, how they were meant to be 
grouped for reading or publication. The hermeneutical issues surrounding 
this issue are perhaps insoluble, since we cannot any longer look at the 
whole collection of letters as Seneca meant it to be read. Moreover, it has so 
far proven difficult to separate philosophical interpretation from questions 
of structure and literary form. 10 If one's ultimate goal is a philosophical 
interpretation of the letters, it will not help much to seek guidance from a 

6 Parts of what follows are adapted from 'The Importance of Form in the Letters of 
Seneca the Younger 1 (Inwood forthcoming). 

7 Reynolds 1965: 17. 

8 See Cancik 1967: 8—12, for sensible discussion of the internal completeness of our 
collection. In n. 18, p. 8, she notes that Reynolds fails to consider the possibility that letters 
may have been lost at the join between the two volumes of letters that came down separately 
through the medieval manuscript tradition. 

9 In addition to the loss of two half books, the order of the books in our NQ_ seems to 
have become seriously confused in the course of transmission. It is likely that the original 
order was 3, 4a, 4b, 5, 6, 7, 8, 1, 2 and quite possible that the work was left incomplete on 
Seneca's death. For further discussion and references, see my 'God and Human Knowledge 
in Seneca's Natural Questions', ch. 6 in Inwood 2005. 

10 Virtually everyone who writes on Seneca's letters has taken an at least implicit position 
on their pedagogical or literary structure and a review of the issue would be both lengthy 
and inconclusive. But some works stand out for their relative good sense. See Maurach 
1970; Cancik 1967, who commits herself to the view that the organizational principle of the 
collection is pedagogical rather than doctrinal, is unusually sensitive to the methodological 
problems involved in discussing the plan and organization of the collection and emphasizes 


view about their literary form which is itself partly shaped by an incipient 
philosophical interpretation. 

These are very serious challenges to the reader, and reflection on these 
difficulties makes the decision to select groups of letters for philosophical 
comment less unjustifiable than it might otherwise be; it certainly makes 
serious philosophical work on the letters a daunting prospect. But the 
Letters to Lucilius remain Seneca's masterpiece, and this is in part because 
they are philosophical letters. We should, then, ask why he chose this form. 
Why, at the end of a long life, a long and tumultuous political career, and 
(perhaps most relevant) at the end of a brilliant literary career of unmatched 
versatility, write letters? The answer is not immediately clear and Seneca's 
motivation was probably not simple. In the commentary I assume that the 
choice of the letter as the literary form is in faet relevant to what Seneca 
aimed to accomplish, and that his inspiration for writing philosophical 
letters came from many sources, the most important of which was perhaps 
Epicurus' published philosophical correspondence, which was originally 
much more extensive than and much of it different in character from 
the letters preserved in Diogenes Laertius, book io. u At the same time, 
Seneca's self-conception as an author of Latin literature is relevant. Not 
only should we assume (what can also be confirmed by observation) that 
Cicero's philosophical works, especially the De Finibus and the Tusculan 
Disputations, were a stimulus for his work, but it is also likely that the then 
recent publication of Cicero's Letters to Atticus contributed to the decision 
to add the literary epistle to the other genres in which Seneca chose to 
write. 12 (Seneca had, after all, been a brilliantly successful author in more 
genres than any other Roman writer one can think of: he was a poet, 
dramatist, public speaker, and essayist in many styles.) The approach to 
Seneca taken in the present commentary presupposes that his character as 

the complexity of the techniques used by Seneca (in her view) to give unity and texture to 
the work. 

11 By Seneca's time there had been a long tradition of philosophical letter- writing. There 
were corpora of letters attributed to Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoreans, Cynics and others. For 
a fuller discussion of Seneca's place in this tradition and the influence of the tradition on 
the way his letters are WTitten, see 'The Importance of Form in the Letters of Seneca the 
Younger' (Inwood forthcoming). 

12 See Griffin 1992: 418—9. For background see Maurach 1970: 181—99. The major 
limitation of his assessment of generic influence on Seneca's letters is his nearly exclusive 
concentration on literary form and his emphasis on Seneca's situation within his Latin literary 
tradition. Hence (pp. 197—8) he downplays the importance of Epicurus' letters and focusses 
more on Horace and Lucilius. Similarly, his grudging concession of possible Ciceronian 
influence on the project of the letters (p. 197) seems to underestimate the motivational power 
of authorial aemulatio. 


a man of letters is of great importance, 13 although this in no way detracts 
from an appreciation of the philosophical intensity of Seneca's project. 

Seneca's Motivation as Author 

It is common, in the interpretation of Seneca's letters, to emphasize the 
apparent 'moral progress' of Lucilius throughout the collection. There is 
an increase in the philosophical intensity and difficulty of the letters as 
the reader proceeds from the first letter to the more technical themes of 
the letters which come latest in our surviving collection. It is, further, 
common to emphasize the role Seneca apparently takes on, not just in 
these letters, as a guide to and inspiration for the moral improvement 
of his addressee. Sometimes this role is described as that of a 'spiritual 
guide' and often this characterization of Seneca's nature as an author has 
a powerful influence on the interpretation of his letters. John Cooper, for 
instance, has been inspired by Ilsetraut Hadot's superb analysis of Seneca 
in Seneca und die griechisch-romische Tradition der Seelenleitung (Hadot 
1969) to treat him primarily as such a spiritual guide (Cooper 2004). This 
is a risky characterization of Seneca's central motivation as an author, and 
some critics have tended to treat Seneca's self-presentation (as an adviser 
and correspondent) as though it were his fundamental philosophical 
motivation. It is tempting but unwarranted to assume that virtually all of 
Seneca's philosophical activity, his interest in theory and argumentation, 
his concern for understanding the phenomena of the natural and human 
world and for convincing his readers of what is the case about it, should 
be approached on the assumption that he is first and foremost a spiritual 
guide, someone whose interests, activity, and methods dominate over the 
more theoretical aspects of philosophy. 

Yet one of the most persistent problems in understanding Seneca has 
always been the large number of roles he plays. In the corpus of his writing 
and in the relatively rich historical record we possess about him we see 
Seneca in many guises: as an occasionally Machiavellian political figure of 
great but transient power, as an eloquent orator devoted to the artfulness 
of fine speech as much as to its power to persuade, as a dark but brilliant 
poet, as a friend, son, and brother, as a philosopher of surprisingly wide 
interests, and as a moral adviser. The contradictions often seen in Seneca's 
life and works stem in part from this variety of roles, and it is obvious 

13 See the longer discussion in chapter i of Inwood 2005. 


that choosing one role or another as central has a considerable impact 
on how one understands Seneca. Perhaps the chief frustration faced in 
studying Seneca lies in the absence of confidence about which role, if 
any, should be treated as central. It would be a great help if we had a 
fully reliable biography or autobiography of the man, but despite our 
mass of information about his life we do not. 14 That is not to say that we 
know nothing about the place of the letters in Seneca's philosophical and 
authorial career — far from it. Griffin's dating of the letters to the period 
after his forced retirement in ad 62 is secure; since Seneca was forced to 
commit suicide in ad 65 the letters can be dated fairly exactly. This means 
that we must bear in mind that Seneca is at the same period working 
on the Natural Questions and quite possibly had only recently completed 
the large and frequently quite technical work On Favours. u In assessing 
Seneca's basic motivations as author of the letters, we should not neglect 
these facts; the range of works he wrote at this stage of his career ought to 
make us hesitate before assuming that Seneca's main intention was to be a 
spiritual guide for the reader. We should perhaps take a wider view of the 

In recent years two developments have occurred that bear on the 
question of how to approach Seneca's character as a philosophical writer. 
Among students of ancient philosophy there has been a dramatic increase 
of interest in and sympathy for the notion that moral guidance and moral 
improvement are an important part of philosophy; many philosophers in 
the English-speaking world generally have embraced the humanly practic- 
al, political, and psychological functions of philosophy in a way that could 
not have been predicted in 1965 or even 1975. The other development has 
been in the study of literature. Students of ancient literature are now much 
more wary of relatively simple biographical claims based on the works 
they study; there is a much greater appreciation now for the elusiveness 
of the author behind the texts he or she wrote, for the complexity of 
the roles one author may play, and for the difficulty of isolating with 
sufficient confidence a central and determinative biographical faet which 
might guide our understan ding of literary works. 

These two developments pull the study of Seneca's philosophical works 
in opposite directions. Philosophers are now much more likely to take 

14 See Edwards 1997: 23—4; this is true despite the magnificent work of Griffin 1992. 

15 Griffin 1992: appendix A; see especially n. G, p. 399. Here Griffin takes account of 
Seneca's lost work On Moral Philosophy, of which sparse fragments survive in Lactantius 
(collected in F. Haase's 1871-2 Teubner edition of Seneca's works, vol. 3, 442—4). These 
fragments do not suggest that the work was of the character indicated by Seneca in his 
allusions to it as a work in progress in 106. 1-3, 108. 1, and 109.17. See Leeman 1953: 309—10. 


Seneca's role as a moral (or 'spiritual') guide to be philosophically relevant, 
to play a central role in the understanding of his philosophical works, 
especially of his letters. Indeed, in light of the impact of Pierre Hadot, 
Michel Foucault, and Martha Nussbaum we would hardly expect the 
therapeutic capacities of philosophy to be of less interest than they were 
a generation ago. And students of literature are now much less likely 
to embrace any biographical facts or presumed motivations as central to 
understanding Seneca's works. In themselves, both of these developments 
are welcome; it is now much less likely that philosophers will pass Seneca 
by as having nothing of philosophical interest to say and students of 
literature are less likely to marginalize for the wrong sort of reasons the 
philosophically robust parts of Seneca's corpus. 

Nevertheless, in approaching Seneca's letters philosophically, it is 
surely a mistake to take it for granted that the author's central motivation 
is to play the role of moral or 'spiritual' guide for his readers. That is 
often his persona, his authorial voice, to be sure. But it is as much a 
mistake to take that authorial self-presentation as the key to philosophical 
interpretation as it would be to begin from his role as political adviser 
or tragic poet. The role of guide and adviser is one that Seneca adopts 
to write the letters; it is apparently the voice which he often wishes to 
be heard first by his readers. But it does not follow that it represents his 
basic authorial motivation or that our philosophical understanding of the 
letters must begin from this alleged faet about Seneca. We should be no 
readier to assume that the literary strategy Seneca chose defines his central 
philosophical concerns than we are to assume that Plato's choice of the 
Socratic dialogue as a form defines his philosophical agenda. In both cases 
it probably matters, but the way that it matters is not something to be 
taken for granted. 

This is especially important for the interpretation of Seneca's letters, 
many of which combine detailed and gritty philosophical discussion 
with an apparent renunciation, halfway through the letter, of that very 
discussion in the interests of what Seneca says is actually relevant to 
moral improvement. For a philosophical reading of the letters perhaps the 
main problem is Seneca's internal self-criticism, his flagrantly ambivalent 
attitude towards philosophical detail and technicality. 16 If we begin from 
the assumption that his central interest is spiritual guidance we will not 
be able to understand why he bothered to give us so much more; we 
often won't be able to ask the right questions about the letters; and 

16 On Seneca's complex attitude to logic, see Barnes 1997; for his attitude to physics see 
most recently Wildberger 2006. 


we are unlikely to persist in the close analysis of his arguments if we 
are too ready to treat Seneca's approach to his readers as pedagogical 
rather than philosophical. We will find ourselves unable to explain why 
a Roman senator with these motivations bothered to write so much more 
widely on various philosophical themes than, for example, Musonius 

In the letters Seneca writes a great deal about physics, dialectic, and what 
we would call metaphysics alongside of argumentation in ethics which is 
far more technical than mere moral guidance requires. He didn't have to 
do this, just as he didn't have to write the Natural Questions, or explore 
at length the intractable ethical paradoxes of the De Beneficiis, or write 
tragedies and the satirical Apocolocyntosis. I assume, then, in writing the 
commentaries which follow that the facts that we do know about Seneca's 
literary output and life history simply do not justify regarding him first and 
foremost as a moral or spiritual guide and as being motivated essentially 
by that mission, any more than those facts would justify regarding him 
fundamentally as an actor on the political scene who had literary ambitions 
on the side. 

Yet some stance must be taken in order to interpret the letters, a 
philosophical work which has had persistent and profound impact on the 
western philosophical tradition, and one of the largest and earliest works 
by a Stoic philosopher to survive from the ancient world. If one is wary 
of treating Seneca as a spiritual and moral guide, as a politician with 
philosophical interests, as a poet or orator with anomalous enthusiasm 
for philosophy, what stance should one take? The safest approach to 
Seneca's work is, as I have suggested, to regard him first and foremost 
as a man of letters, a littérateur, as a writer whose first concern is with 
his art and his audience. This is a relatively neutral stance to take and 
a relatively solid foundation for interpretation; it does not impose very 
heavy constraints on how we interpret his works. We do, after all, know 
with certainty that he wrote literary works of real distinction in a wider 
range of genres than any other Latin author. His harshest critics, ancient 
and modern, concede his stylistic accomplishments, his authorial éclat, 
even if they deplore what they interpret as a certain self-indulgence and 
lack of self-restraint. Moreover, literary ambition is compatible with many 
different substantive motivations — moral, metaphysical, poetic, political. 
All such themes benefit from, even require, literary skill if they are to 
have impact on a wide audience as they were certainly meant to do. Hence 
thinking first of Seneca's authorial ambitions will enable us to read each 
letter with a more open mind. 


Seneca's Approach to Writing Philosophy 

It is still quite common to see Seneca treated as an eclectic philosopher, 
someone who picks and chooses his inspirations not on the basis of a 
commitment to the central doctrines of Stoicism and not on the basis 
of a conviction about the intellectual coherence of the views he adopts. 
This seems misguided. As I have tried to show in Reading Seneca (Inwood 
2005), he is better characterized as a creative and engaged philosophical 
writer, prepared to argue for the merits of the positions which he holds. 
He writes in an intellectual environment where the influence of Plato 
and Aristotle and their schools cannot be neglected, and in which readers 
interested in philosophy could be assumed to be comfortable in Greek as 
well as in Latin. 17 Like Cicero a century before and like most outward- 
looking philosophical writers in all eras, he writes with an eye to the 
positions held by the significant philosophical interlocutors with whom 
he is engaged. On the internal evidence of the letters alone we can be 
sure that these interlocutors included Epicureans as well as Platonists 
and Aristotelians. Yet he never presents himself as anything other than 
a Stoic. Seneca feels quite comfortable in taking independent and critical 
stances about various of his Stoic predecessors and, as I shall argue in 
the commentary, he seems to have particular sympathy on some issues 
with the views of Aristo of Chios (while opposing him on others), with 
those of Cleanthes, and those of Posidonius. Zeno takes pride of place 
as founder of the school, of course. Chrysippus and other Stoics are 
suitable targets of criticism when there is reason to object to their views, 
yet that does not diminish Seneca's commitment to Stoicism; nor should 
this sort of criticism itself make us doubt his skill as a philosopher. 
In many letters Seneca is notably concerned to emphasize the common 
ground he shares with Epicureans; he is less vociferous about the faet 
that his version of Stoicism often emphasizes approaches shared with 
Platonism. But through all of this he thinks and speaks independently 
as a Stoic. Perhaps a short extract from letter 84 (not included in this 
selection) will serve as a helpful guide to interpreting the letters in 

17 Seneca writes determinedly in a Latin tradition, but does not hesitate to introduce 
Greek terms when it is philosophically appropriate. Since the most important w r ork in 
philosophy had been done in Greek, Seneca, like Cicero, must often use Latin tech- 
nical terms to represent Greek terms (such as commoda, advantages, for proegmena, 
preferred indifferents). He is not, however, meehanieal in so doing (see Inwood 2005: 
ch. 1) and the relevant Greek background and terms are discussed in the commentary as 


In the case of our body we see that nature does this [produces a new unity out of 
distinct inputs] without any effort on our part. 

As long as the food which we ingest keeps its original character and sits intact 
in our stomach, it is a burdensome lump. But when the food is transformed from 
its original state it is then able to pass into the bloodstream and contribute to our 
bodily strength. In the case of the nourishment we take for our intellects, we should 
do the same thing and not permit what we consume to remain intact — for fear 
that it should be foreign to us. Let's digest it. Otherwise, it will be remembered 
but won't affect our intellect. Let us give these things our genuine assent and make 
them our very own, so as to create a unity out of plurality, the way one total is 
produced out of distinct numbers when a single calculation brings together several 
different, lesser sums. This is what our mind should do. It should conceal the ideas 
which have helped it along and display only the final result. If your admiration for 
someone leads to the appearance of a deep similarity to that person, I'd want that 
resemblance to resemble that of a son [to his father] and not that of a picture [to 
its model]; a [mere] picture is something dead. (84.5-8) 

Seneca thinks for himself and claims to produce something new and his 
own from the sources of his inspiration; we should not expect him to 
display all the joints of his intellectual physiognomy. 

Perhaps the most engaging feature of Seneca's letters is the directness 
and urgency of the author's personal voice, that is, of the voice which 
he chooses to let us hear. Since this aspect of his thought will not be 
much emphasized in the letters chosen and in the comment on them, let 
me round out this introduction with Seneca's own introduction to the 
collection, Letter 1. 

1 . Do it, Lucilius my friend. Reclaim yourself. Assemble and preserve your time, 
which has until now been snatched from you, stolen, or just gotten lost. Convince 
yourself that what I say is true: some of our time is robbed from us, some burgled, 
and some slips out of our hånds. The most shameful loss, though, is what happens 
through negligence. And if you're willing to pay attention: a good deal of life is 
lost for those who conduct it badly; most of it is lost for those who do nothing at 
all; but all of life is lost for those who don't pay attention. 

2. Who can you show me who values his time? who knows what a day is worth? 
who understands that he is dying every day? Our mistake, you see, is in looking 
ahead to death. A good deal of death has already passed. The years which have so 
far gone by are in the hånds of death. So, Lucilius, do what you claim to be doing 
and embrace every hour. In that way you'll be less dependent on tomorrow if you 
set your hånd to today. Life flits by while things get put off. 

3. Lucilius, everything belongs to someone else. Only our time is our own. 
We have been sent by nature to seize this one possession, which is fleeting and 
slippery; we can be driven out of it by anyone who cares to do so. People are so 


stupid that they let themselves go into debt by acquiring the cheapest and most 
trivial things, which they could easily pay off. But no one who has received the 
gift of time acknowledges the obligation, even though this is the one thing which 
even a grateful man cannot repay. 

4. Maybe you're going to ask about my own behaviour, since I'm giving you all 
this advice. Pil make a clean confession. Like a careful spendthrift I keep good 
records of my expenditures. I cannot claim that I don't squander anything. But I 
could tell you what I squander and why and how. I can give a full account of my 
poverty. My experience is like that of most people who are impoverished through 
no fault of their own: everyone forgives, no one helps out. 

5. So what's the situation? I don't think that anyone is poor if the little bit he still 
has is enough for him. Nevertheless, I'd rather see you preserve what's yours and 
start in good time. For as our ancestors thought, 18 it's too late to pour sparingly 
from the bottom of the bottle. There is only a tiny bit left at that point, and that 
bit is of the lowest quality. 

Whatever his real feelings and motivations, Seneca presents himself in 
the Letters as a philosopher in a hurry, as a man interested above all else 
in the concrete result of making his life better, as a man with no time 
to lose. Further, he presents himself as an imperfect man, someone with 
many failings and at least able to claim awareness of his own failings. 
There is an urgent sense of the importance of making progress in the 
philosophical life, an awareness that the end of life is always near, and an 
admission of his own ignorance. Seneca is certainly not a Socrates, but in 
these letters we see a dramatic representation of many things which are 
central to the Socratic tradition of philosophizing. In the letters which 
follow we can see the argumentative and sometimes truculent side of 
philosophy as well as its homiletic and self-reflective aspects. It is the aim 
of this book to emphasize the former, even at the expense of the latter. 
The philosophical gain will be considerable, I hope, and if in the process 
we can come to a better understanding of why he should have been such 
an influential philosopher for so many centuries that will be an historical 
gain as well. 

The Selection of Letters 

This book represents an attempt to open up Seneca's most influential prose 
work, the Letters to Lucilius on Ethics, to a larger and more philosophically 
oriented readership than it now enjoys. Limitations of space and time have 

18 Hes Op. 369. 


required that only a small number of letters be selected for translation 
and comment; this inevitably skews the portrayal of Seneca, but the 
distortion will I hope be a useful corrective for the even more unbalanced 
representation of Seneca and his philosophical works which prevails today. 
Seneca's letters form a large and varied corpus, much of which is of only 
indirect philosophical interest, and yet the collection is put together in an 
orderly and artistic way, with strong thematic interdependences among 
the letters which inevitably affect the significance of individual letters and 
of sections within various letters. I have tried to keep such relationships 
in mind throughout, but selection inevitably imposes limitations. Hence a 
brief word about how the selection was made seems in order. 

The integrity of each book of letters (twenty books survive and we 
know that originally there were at least twenty-two) is an important faet 
about the collection. Despite their outwardly casual manner, great care 
went in to the crafting of each book as a literary unity. As a representation 
of this feature of the letters, Book 20, which contains a very high 
concentration of philosophically important letters, is included in its 
entirety, although some of its letters would not merit inclusion on their 
own. On the other hånd, two of the most important letters in the 
collection, 94 and 95, are omitted because of their size — to include them 
would make it impossible to include much else, and there is already 
an abundant scholarly literature on them. Because Seneca's relation to 
other philosophical schools is of particular importance for establishing 
the interest of his approach to various issues in Stoicism, I begin with 58 
and 65, which engage in a very direct manner with issues in Platonism 
and Aristotelianism. These letters too (or rather, select portions of them) 
have generated a substantial amount of scholarly attention. But too little 
of it, in my view, addresses the letters which as wholes are works of 
philosophical interest. They have usually been regarded as evidence for 
an attempted reconstruction of earlier and mostly non-Stoic philosophy. 
My approach is to allow such questions to recede into the background 
as I isolate what I take to be the main philosophical issues of these 
letters themselves, unexcerpted. Letter 66 is not only of great interest 
in connection with 58 and 65, but like several others (71, 76, 85, 87) 
it tackles central issues in the Stoic theory of value. Consideration of 
this set of letters permits an exploration of Seneca's attitudes towards 
Platonism and Aristotelianism, as well as to earlier phases in the school's 

Book 20, which contains seven letters, begins with 118, a letter which is 
impossible to appreciate fully without a consideration of 117, itself one of 


a group of letters that raise important questions about the balance between 
technical philosophical writing and a more 'literary' or popular approach 
to the main issues of ethics and physics. Because I think that Seneca's 
position on and contribution to Stoic physics and even metaphysics has 
been misunderstood I also include 106, 113, and 117. 

The final tally, then, is seventeen letters, a number coincidentally the 
same as that included in a literary collection compiled by C. D. N. Costa 
(Sene ca: ij Letters (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1988) ) with which my 
selection overlaps by only one letter, 122. For convenience I have divided 
my seventeen letters into five groups, but the reader should be warned 
that this is a somewhat arbitrary procedure. What is not arbitrary, though, 
is my determination to treat each chosen letter as an integral whole rather 
than excerpting the parts of each which stand out for the intensity of 
their philosophical merit. This kind of excerption has often been practiced 
(especially with 58, 65, and 87), but it inevitably prejudges the nature of 
Seneca's philosophical endeavour in an unproductive way. Whatever else 
Seneca may have intended to accomplish in a given letter, he certainly 
wrote each one as an artistic unity and any philosophical interpretation 
should begin from a recognition of that faet. 

Seneca's letters are cited in boldface font (41. 1 is Letter 41, section 1) 
without the title of the work. In the translation I retain the section divisions 
used in Reynolds's Oxford Classical Text and often the paragraphing as 
well. Throughout I adopt Reynolds's text, except where I explicitly signal 
disagreement in the notes or commentary; important textual variations 
are mentioned briefly in the commentary. With regard to gendered usages 
(man vs human, for example) I have respected Seneca's marked use of 
the gendered term for man (vir) and the non-gendered term for humans 
(homo) as consistently as I could manage; where the context seems to 
demand a gendered interpretation I have used 'man' rather than 'human' 
or 'person' as appropriate. Throughout the masculine personal pronoun 
is used for generic references to human beings. 

A final note. Each letter begins and ends with the conventional phrases 
of Latin letter-writing: Seneca Lucilio suo salutem and Vale ('Seneca wishes 
health to his friend Lucilius' and 'FarewelP, a phrase which literally 
means 'be strong' but is also the standard way of saying 'goodbye' in 
spoken Latin). These are standard phrases, not personalized to reflect 
the writer's feelings or attitude towards the recipient. Yet Roman letter- 
writing conventions are not our own, so that a wholly modern 'Dear 
Lucilius . . . Yours truly' would be almost as misleading as omission of 


the epistolary conventions altogether. It is easy to imagine Seneca being 
aware at some level that these standard formulae do in faet wish Lucilius 
health and strength, a sentiment he surely feels for his friend. Hence 
these phrases are translated in a formulaic manner designed to reflect 
the conventional character of epistolary discourse and still to hint at the 
nuances of the Latin: 'Seneca to Lucilius, greetings:' and 'FarewelP. 


Abbreviations generally follow the practice of LSJ (Liddell-Scott-Jones, 
Greek-English Lexicon) and the OLD (Oxford Latin Dictionary), with the 
exception of the folio wing: 

Acad. Academica 

Ben. De Beneficiis 

Brev. Vit. De Brevitate Vitae 

CH HP Cambridge History ofHellenistic Philosophy 

CIAG Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca 

Clem. De Clementia 

Cons. Helv. Consolatio ad Helviam Matrem 

Cons. Marc. Consolatio ad Marciam 

Cons. Polyb. Consolatio ad Polybium 

Const. Sap. De Constantia Sapientis 

Ecl. Stobaeus, Eclogae 

E-K Edelstein-Kidd (1989) 

KD Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 

LS Long and Sedley (1987) 

NQ_ Naturales Quaestiones 

Prov. De Providentia 

SVF Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 

Tranq. An. De Tranquillitate Animi 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1. Today more than ever I understood how impoverished, indeed 
destitute, our vocabulary is. When we happened to be discussing Plato, 
a thousand things came up which needed names but lacked them; but 
there were some which, though they used to have names, had lost them 
owing to our fussiness. But who would tolerate fussiness in the midst of 

2. What the Greeks call the 'gadfly', which stampedes livestock and 
drives them all over their pastures, used to be called asilus by Romans. 
You can trust Vergil on the point: 

There is, near the grove of the Silarus River and the Alburnus green with 


A multitude of flies, whose Roman name is asilus but which the Greeks have 

translated and call 'gadfly' 

— harsh, with a strident sound, by which whole herds of cattle are terrified and 

driven throughout the forest. 1 

It can, I think, be understood that the word had become obsolete. 

3. Not to keep you unduly; certain non-compound verbs used to be 
current; e.g., they used to say 'settle it [cernere] by the sword'. Vergil will 
prove this for you too: 

Powerful men, horn in various parts of the world, 
Clashed and settled it by the sword. 2 

We now say 'decernere ' for this. The currency of that non-compound verb 
has been lost. 

4. The ancients said 'if I command', i.e., if I should command. I don't 
want you to take my word for this, but Vergil's again: 

Let the rest of the soldiers charge alongside me, where I command. 3 

1 Vergil, Georgics 3.146-50. 

2 Vergil, Aeneid 12.708— 9. 

3 Vergil, Aeneid 11.467. 


5. My present aim with this attention to detail is not to show how much 
time I have squandered on grammatical commentators, but to help you 
understand how many words in Ennius and Accius have been overtaken 
by disuse — since some terms even in Vergil, who is studied daily, have 
been lost to us. 

6. You're asking, 'What is the point of this introduction? What's the 
purpose?' I won't hide it from you. I want, if possible, to use the term 
'essentiel' with your approval; but if that is not possible I will use the term 
even if it annoys you. I can cite Cicero as an authority for this word, an 
abundantly influential one in my view. If you are looking for someone 
more up-to-date, I can cite Fabianus, who is learned and sophisticated, 
with a style polished enough even for our contemporary fussiness. For 
what will happen, Lucilius [if we don't allow esse ntia]? How will [the 
Greek term] ousia be referred to, an indispensable thing, by its nature 
containing the foundation of all things? So I beg you to permit me to use 
this word. Still, I shall take care to use the permission you grant very 
sparingly. Maybe PH be content just to have the permission. 

7. What good will your indulgence do when I can find no way to 
express in Latin the very notion which provoked my criticism of our 
language? Your condemnation of our Roman limitations will be more 
intense if you find out that there is a one-syllable word for which I cannot 
find a substitute. What syllable is this, you ask? To on. You think I am 
dull-witted — it is obvious that the word can be translated as 'what is'. But 
I see a big difference between the terms. I am forced to replace a noun 
with a verb. But if I must, I will use 'what is'. 

8. Our friend, a very learned person, was saying today that this term 
has six senses in Plato. I will be able to explain all of them to you, if I 
first point out that there is such a thing as a genus and so too a species. 
But we are now looking for that primary genus on which other species 
depend and which is the source of every division and in which all things 
are included. It will be found if we start to pick things out, one by one, 
starting in reverse order. We will thus be brought to the primary [genus]. 

9. Human is a species, as Aristotle says, horse is a species, dog is a 
species. So we have to look for something common to them all, a linkage 
which contains them and is ranged above them. What is this? Animal. So 
there starts to be a genus for all those things I just mentioned (human, 
horse, dog), viz. animal. 

10. But some things have a soul but are not animals. For it is generally 
agreed that piants too have a soul, and so we say that they live and die. 
Therefore 'ensouled [living] things' will have a higher rank because both 

LETTER 58 5 

animals and piants are in this category. But some things lack soul (rocks, 
e.g.). Therefore there will be something more basic than ensouled things, 
viz. body. I will divide it in such a way as to claim that all bodies are either 
ensouled or soulless. 

11. Furthermore, there is something superior to body; for we say 
that some things are corporeal and some are incorporeal. So what will 
the source of these things be? That to which we just now assigned the 
inappropriate name 'what is'. For it will be divided into species in such a 
way that we can say: 'what is' is either corporeal or incorporeal. 

12. This, therefore, is the primary and most basic genus — the generic 
genus, so to speak. The others are genera, to be sure, but specific genera. 
For example, human is a genus, since it contains within itself as species 
nationalities (Greeks, Romans, Parthians) and colours (white, black, blond- 
haired); it also contains individuals (Cato, Cicero, Lucretius). So in so far 
as it contains many, it is classified as a genus; in so far as it falls under some 
other, it is classified as a species. The generic genus 'what is' has nothing 
above itself; it is the starting point for things; everything falls under it. 

13. The Stoics want to put above this yet another genus which is more 
fundamental. I will address this presently, once I have shown that it is 
right to treat the genus I have already spoken of as primary, since it 
contains everything. 

14. I divide 'what is' into these species: things are corporeal or incor- 
poreal; there is no third possibility. How do I divide body? So that I can 
say: they are either ensouled or soulless. Again, how do I divide ensouled 
things? So that I can say this: some have mind, some merely have soul — or 
this: some have impulse, move, and relocate; and some are fastened in 
the ground, nourished by roots, and grow. Again, into what species do I 
divide animals? They are either mortal or immortal. 

15. Some Stoics think that the primary genus is 'something'. I will add 
an account of why they think so. They say, 'in nature, some things are, 
some are not, but nature embraces even those things which are not and 
which occur to the mind (such as Centaurs, Giants, and whatever else 
is shaped by an erroneous thought process and begins to take on some 
appearance, although it does not have reality).' 

16. Now I return to the topic I promised you: how Plato divides all the 
things that are into six senses. The first 'what is' is not grasped by vision, 
by touch, or by any sense. It is thinkable. What is in a generic way, e.g., 
generic human, is not subject to being seen. But a specific human is, such 
as Cicero and Cato. Animal is not seen; it is thought. But its species, horse 
and dog, are seen. 


17. Plato puts second among things which are that which is outstanding 
and surpasses everything. He says that this 'is' par excellence. 'Poet' is a 
common description — for this name is given to all who compose verses; 
but among the Greeks it has yielded to the farne of one. When you hear 
'the poet' you understand 'Homer'. So what is this [which Plato says 'is' 
par excellence]} God, of course, greater and more powerful than everything 

18. There is a third genus of things which 'are' in the proper sense. 
They are countless but located beyond our view. What, you ask, are they? 
It's a bit of Plato's personal baggage; he calls them 'ideas'; they are the 
source of everything we see and all things are shaped by reference to them. 
They are deathless, unchangeable, immune to harm. 

19. Listen to what an 'idea' is, i.e., what Plato thinks it is. 'An idea is the 
eternal model of those things which are produced by nature.' I will add 
to the definition an interpretation so that it will be clearer to you. I want 
to produce an image of you. I have you as a model for the painting, from 
which our mind derives a certain disposition which it imposes on its work. 
In this way the appearance which teaches me and guides me, the source 
of the imitation, is an idea. Nature, then, contains an indefinite number 
of such models — of humans, fish, trees. Whatever is to be produced by 
nature is shaped with reference to them. 

20. 'Form' will have fourth place. You need to pay close attention to 
the account of what 'form' is. Blame Plato, not me, for the difficulty of the 
topic: there is no technicality without difficulty. A moment ago I used the 
example of a painter. When he wanted to render Vergil with colours, he 
looked at Vergil himself. The 'idea' was Vergil's appearance, a model for 
the intended work. The form is that which the artisan derives from the 
appearance and imposed on his own work. 

21. You ask, what is the difference between idea and form? The one is 
a model, while the other is a shape taken from the model and imposed on 
the work. The artisan imitates the one and produces the other. A statue 
has a certain appearance — this is its form. The model itself has a certain 
appearance which the workman looked at when he shaped the statue. This 
is the idea. If you still want a further distinction, the form is in the work 
and the idea outside it — and not only outside it but prior to it. 

22. The fifth genus is of those things which 'are' in the ordinarily accept- 
ed sense. These begin to be relevant to us; everything is here — humans, 
herds, possessions. The sixth genus is of those things which 'as it were' 
are, such as the void, such as time. 

LETTER 58 7 

Plato does not count the things we see or touch among those that he 
thinks 'are' in the strict sense. For they are in flux and constantly engaged 
in shrinkage and growth. None of us is the same in old age as in youth. 
None of us is the same the next day as he was the day before. Our bodies 
are swept along like rivers. Whatever you see runs with [the passage of] 
time. None of what we see is stable. I myself, while saying that those 
things are changing, have changed. 

23. This is what Heraclitus says: we do and do not enter the same river 
twice. The name of the river stays the same, the water has passed on. This 
is more apparent in a river than in a human being, but a current no less 
rapid sweeps us along too. And so I am puzzled by our madness, in that 
we are so in love with a thing so fieeting — our body — and fear that we 
might die someday when in faet every moment is the death of a prior state. 
You oughtn't to be afraid that what happens daily might happen once! 

24. I referred to a human being, a fluid and perishable bit of matter 
prey to all sorts of causes. The cosmos too, an eternal, invincible object, 
changes and does not stay the same. Although it contains within itself all 
that it ever had, it has them differently than it did before. It changes the 

25. 'What good,' you ask, 'will this technicality do for me?' None, if 
you ask me. But just as the engraver relaxes, refreshes and, as they say, 
'nourishes' his eyes, tired from lengthy concentration, so too we should 
sometimes relax our mind and refresh it with certain amusements. But 
let the amusements themselves be work and from them too, if you pay 
attention, you will gain something which could turn out to be good for 

26. This, Lucilius, is what I normally do: from every notion, even if it 
is quite remote from philosophy, I try to dig out something and make it 
useful. What is more remote from the improvement of our habits than the 
discourse I just gave? How can the Piatonic ideas make me better? What 
could I derive from them that might control my desires? Maybe just this, 
that all those things which serve the senses, which enflame and stimulate 
us — Plato says that they are not among the things which truly are. 

27. Therefore they are like images and have a merely temporary 
appearance; none of them is stable and reliable. And yet we desire them 
as though they would be forever or as though we would possess them 
forever. We are weak and fluid beings amidst emptiness. Let us direct 
our mind to what is eternal. Let us soar aloft and marvel at the shapes of 
all things and god circulating among them, taking care that he keep from 


death what he could not make immortal due to the impediments of matter 
and that he conquer bodily defects with rationality. 

28. For all things endure not because they are eternal but because 
they are protected by a ruler's concern; immortal things would need no 
protector. The craftsman keeps them safe by conquering the fragility 
of matter with his own power. Let us despise all things which are 
so far from being valuable that it is open to question whether they 
even are . 

29. Let us at the same time consider this, that if he by his foresight 
protects the cosmos itself (which is no less mortal than we are) from 
dangers, then to some extent by our own foresight our sojourn in this 
pathetic body can also be prolonged considerably — if we can rule and rein 
in the pleasures, by which most people perish. 

30. Plato himself extended his life into old age by taking care of himself. 
To be sure, he was fortunate enough to have a strong and healthy body 
(his broad chest gave him his name), but his voyages and dangerous 
adventures had greatly diminished his strength. But frugality, moderation 
with respect to things that elicit greed, and attentive care for himself got 
him through to old age despite many adverse factors. 

3 1 . For I think you know that thanks to his attentive care for himself 
it was Plato's fortune to die on his own birthday, having lived exactly 
81 years. So the magi who happened to be in Athens sacrificed to him in 
death, supposing that his fortune was superhuman in that he had lived out 
the most perfect number — which they make by multiplying nine times 
nine. I am pretty sure that you would be willing to give up a few days from 
the total and also the cult offering. 

32. Parsimonious living can prolong one's old age, and though I don't 
think it should be longed for I also don't think it should be rejected either. 
It is pleasant to be with oneself as long as possible when one has made 
oneself worth spending time with. And so we will render a verdict on 
the question whether it is appropriate to be fussy about the final stages 
of old age and not to just wait for the end but to bring it about directly. 
Someone who sluggishly considers his approaching fate is close to being 
fearful; just as someone who drains the wine jar and sucks up the dregs 
too is immoderately devoted to wine. 

33. Still, we will investigate this issue: is the final stage of life dregs 
or something very clear and pure — if only the intelligence is undamaged 
and sound senses assist the mind and the body is not worn out and dead 
before its time. For it makes a big difference whether it is life or death that 
one is prolonging. 

LETTER 58 9 

34. But if the body is useless for its duties, why wouldn't it be appropriate 
to escort the failing mind out the door? And perhaps it is to be done a little 
before it needs to be, to avoid the situation where you are unable to do 
it when it needs to be done. And since there is a greater danger in living 
badly than there is in dying swiftly, he is a fool who doesn't buy out the 
risk of a great misfortune by paying a small price in time. Few make it 
to their deaths intact if old age is greatly prolonged; many have a passive 
life, lying there unable to make use of themselves. In the end, there is no 
crueller loss in life than the loss of the right to end it. 

35. Don't listen to me reluctantly, as though this maxim already applies 
to you, and do evaluate what I am saying. I will not abandon my old age 
if it leaves me all of myself, but that means all of the better part. But if it 
starts to weaken my intelligence, to dislodge its parts, if what it leaves me 
is not a life but just being alive, then I shall jump clear of a decayed and 
collapsing building. 

36. I shall not flee disease by means of death, as long as it is curable 
and does not impede the mind. I will not do violence to myself because 
of pain. Such a death is a defeat. But if I see that I have to suffer pain 
ceaselessly, I will make my exit, not because of pain but because it will be 
an obstacle for me with regard to the whole point of living. He who dies 
because of pain is weak and cowardly, but he who lives for pain is a fool. 

37. But I digress too long. It is still a topic one could spend the day 
on — but how can someone put an end to his life if he cannot put an end 
to his letter? So be well: you'll be happier to read that than non-stop talk 
about death. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1. I shared yesterday with my poor health. It claimed the morning for 
itself and yielded to me in the afternoon. So I first tested my mind by 
reading; then, when it tolerated this activity I made bold to ask more of 
it — rather, to allow it more. I wrote a bit, more vigorously than usual, 
in faet, since I was grappling with tough material and didn't want to be 
beaten. I wrote until some friends interrupted me to bar me forcibly from 
working, as though I were an obstreperous patient. 

2. Talking replaced writing, and I will report to you the part of our 
conversation which remains contentious. We have made you our arbitrator. 
It is a bigger job than you think: the case has three parts. 

As you know, those of our school, the Stoics, say that there are two 
things in nature from which everything comes to be, cause and matter. 
Matter is passive, suitable for anything and bound to remain idle if no 
one moves it. But cause, i.e., reason, shapes matter, turns it wherever it 
wishes, and generates from it a wide range of works. So a thing must have 
a source of becoming and an agent of becoming. The former is its matter 
and the latter its cause. 

3. Every craft is an imitation of nature, and so apply what I was saying 
about the universe to the artefacts which humans make. A statue had 
matter, to yield to the artisan, and an artisan, to give a shape to the matter. 
So in the case of the statue the material was the bronze and the cause was 
the workman. The same state of affairs holds for all things — they consist 
of that which becomes and that which makes. 

4. The Stoic view is that there is one cause, that which makes. 
Aristotle thinks that cause is said in three ways. The first cause, he says, 

is the material itself, without which nothing can be produced. The second 
is the workman. The third is the form, which is imposed on each work as 
it is on a statue. For Aristotle calls this the form. 'A fourth cause,' he says 
'accompanies these: the purpose of the entire product.' 
5. 1 will explain what this is. 


The bronze is the first cause of a statue; for it never would have been 
made if there had not existed the material from which it could be cast or 
shaped. The second cause is the artisan. For the bronze could not have 
been shaped into the configuration of a statue unless skilled hånds were 
applied to it. The third cause is the form. For the statue would not be 
called the 'spear-carrier' or the 'boy tying up his hair' unless this shape 
had been imposed on it. The fourth cause is the purpose of making it. For 
if there had been no purpose the statue would not have been made. 

6. What is the purpose? It is what motivated the artisan, what he sought 
in making it. Either it is money (if he produced it for sale) or glory (if he 
worked for renown) or piety (if he made it as a temple offering). Therefore 
this too is a cause on account of which it is made. Or do you not think we 
should count as a cause that in whose absence the artefact would not have 
been produced? 

7. To these causes Plato adds a fifth, the model, which he himself 
calls an 'idea'. For this is what the artisan looked to in making what he 
planned to make. And in faet it is not relevant whether he has an external 
model to which he can direct his gaze, or an internal model which he 
himself conceived of and placed there. God has within himself models 
of all things and he has grasped with his intellect the aspects and modes 
of every thing which is to be done. He is full of the shapes which Plato 
calls 'ideas' — immortal, unchanging, and untiring. So humans pass away, 
of course, but human-ness itself, with reference to which a human being 
is shaped, persists. Human beings may struggle and die, but it suffers 

8. So, on Plato's view, there are five causes: that from which, that by 
which, that in which, that with reference to which, that because of which. 
Last of all is that which comes from them. For example, a statue (since 
I have already begun to use this example). The 'from which' is bronze, 
the 'by which' is the artisan, the 'in which' is the form which is fitted to 
the matter, the 'with reference to which' is the model which the maker 
imitates, the 'because of which' is the purpose of the maker, and 'what 
comes from them' is the statue itself. 

9. The cosmos too, according to Plato, has all of them: a maker (this is 
god), a 'from which' (this is matter), a form (this is the configuration and 
order of the visible cosmos), a model (i.e., what god looked to in making 
this vast and most beautiful work), and a purpose because of which he 
made it. 

10. You ask, what is god's purpose? Goodness. So, to be sure, Plato 
says, 'What was the cause for god making the cosmos? That he is good. 


A good person does not begrudge any good thing, and so he made it as 
good as possible.' 

All right, then, you be the judge and give a verdict, proclaim which one 
seems to say what most closely resembles the truth, not which one says 
what is truest — for that is as far above us as is truth itself. 

1 1 . The swarm of causes which is posited by Plato and Aristotle includes 
either too many or too few. For if they decide that the cause of making 
something is anything whose absence means that the thing cannot be 
made, then they have stated too few. Let them include 'time' among the 
causes; nothing can be made without time. Let them include place; if there 
isn't a place for something to be made it surely won't be made. Let them 
include motion. Nothing is either done or perishes without it; there is no 
craft without motion, no change. 

12. But what we are now looking for is a primary and generic cause. 
This should be simple, since matter too is simple. Do we ask what cause 
is? To be sure, it is reason in action, i.e., god. For all those things you 
people have cited are not many distinct causes; rather, they depend on 
one, the active cause. 

13. Do you say that the form is a cause? The artisan imposes it on 
his work. It is a part of the cause, not the cause. The model too is not 
a cause but a means necessary for the cause. The model is necessary for 
the artisan just as the scraper and the file are necessary. Without these the 
craft cannot make progress, but still they are not parts or causes of the 

14. He says, 'The purpose of the artisan, because of which he proceeds 
to make something, is also a cause.' Granted that it is a cause, it is not an 
efficient cause but a subsequent cause. But there are countless causes of 
this sort, and we are asking about a generic cause. But they weren't using 
their customary sophistication when they said that the entire cosmos, i.e., 
the finished work, is a cause. For there is a big difference between the 
work and the cause of the work. 

15. Either give a verdict, or, as is easier in such matters, say that it is 
not clear to you and tell us to re-argue the case. 

You say, 'What pleasure do you take in wasting time on those issues, 
ones that do not strip you of any passion or ward off any desire?' 

In faet I am dealing with those more important issues, the ones that 
soothe the mind, and I investigate myself first and then this cosmos. 

16. And I am not wasting time even now, as you think. For if all 
those issues are not chopped up and dispersed into this kind of pointless 
technicality, they elevate and relieve the mind, which, being burdened by 

LETTER 65 13 

its great load, desires to be set free and to return to the things it used 
to be part of. For this body is a burden and a penalty for the mind. It 
is oppressed by its weight and is in chains unless philosophy comes to it 
and urges it to take its ease before the sight of nature and directs it away 
from what is earthly and towards the divine. This is its freedom, this is its 
escape. From time to time it slips away from the prison in which it is held 
and is refreshed by the [sight of the] heavens. 

17. Just as artisans who work on some quite detailed job which wearies 
their eyes with concentration, if they have to rely on bad and uncertain 
lighting, come out in the open and treat their eyes to the light in some area 
devoted to the public leisure — so too the mind, enclosed in this sad and 
gloomy dwelling, seeks the open air and takes its ease in the contemplation 
of nature as often as it can. 

18. He who is wise and pursues wisdom clings to his body, but even so 
with the best part of himself he is elsewhere and focusses his thoughts on 
higher matters. Like a soldier under oath he thinks of this life as a tour of 
duty; and he has been trained to neither love nor hate life, and he puts up 
with mortal matters though he knows that higher things await him. 

19. Do you ban me from an investigation of nature, drag me away from 
the whole and confine me to a part? Shall I not investigate the principles 
of all things? Who gave them form? Who made distinctions among things 
which were melded into one and enmeshed in passive matter? Shall I not 
enquire who is the artisan of this cosmos? How so great a mass was reduced 
to lawlike structure? Who gathered the scattered bits, who separated what 
was combined and brought shape to things lying in unsightly neglect? 
Where did this great light come from? Is it fire or something brighter than 

20. Shall I not ask these questions? Shall I remain ignorant of my 
origins? Am I to see these things just once or am I to be born many times? 
Where am I to go from here? What residence awaits the soul when it is 
freed from the laws of human servitude? You forbid me to meddle with 
the heavens, i.e., you order me to live with bowed head. 

21. I am greater than that and born for greater things than to be a slave 
to my body, which I think of as no different than a chain fastened about 
my freedom. So I position it as a defence against fortune, so that she will 
stop right there; I permit no wound to get through the body to me. This 
is the only part of me which can suffer wrongs. A free mind lives in this 
vulnerable dwelling. 

22. That flesh will never drive me to fear, never to pretence unworthy 
of a good person; I shall never lie to show 'respect' for this paltry body. 


When I see fit, I shall dissolve my partnership with it. Even now, however, 
while we cling together, we will not be partners on equal terms. The mind 
will reserve all rights to itself. To despise one's body is a reliable freedom. 

23. To return to my point, even the investigation we were just discussing 
will make a substantial contribution to this freedom. To be sure, all things 
are formed from matter and god. God regulates those things which 
surround and follow him as guide and leader. But the active principle, Le., 
god, is more powerful and more valuable than the matter which submits 
to god. 

24. The place which god occupies in this cosmos corresponds to mind's 
place in a human being. Matter there corresponds to the body in us. So 
let the inferior serve the better. Let us be brave in the face of chance 
circumstances; let us not tremble at wrongs nor at wounds, neither at 
chains nor at want. What is death? Either an end or a transition. I am not 
afraid to come to an end — that is the same as not having started — nor to 
move on — because I will not be so confined anywhere else. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i . Claranus was a fellow student of mine and I have seen him again 
after many years. You don't have to wait, I think, for me to add that the 
man I saw was old. But good heavens, he was youthful and vigorous in 
mind even as he struggled with his frail body. For nature has been unfair 
and found a poor location for a mind of his calibre. Or maybe she wanted 
to demonstrate to us this very point, that a spirit of the greatest courage 
and happiness can be concealed beneath any surface. Nevertheless, he has 
conquered every obstacle and gone from despising himself to despising 
everything else. 

2. The poet who said 'virtue which radiates from a beautiful body 
is the more pleasing' 1 was wrong, in my opinion. For virtue needs no 
embellishment. It is itself a significant adornment and makes its body 
blessed too. I certainly began to look at my friend Claranus in a new way: 
I think he is attractive and as straight in body as he is in mind. 

3. A great man can come from a humble hut; an attractive and great 
mind can come even from an ugly and modest body. And so I think that 
nature produces certain such people just to confirm that virtue can come 
to exist in any place. If she were able to create naked minds she would have 
done so; now she does something better. She creates certain people who 
are physically impeded but who nevertheless break through the obstacles. 

4. I think Claranus was created as an exemplar, so that we could know 
that the mind is not defiled by bodily impairment but that the body is 
adorned by mental beauty. However, although we were together for only a 
very few days, we nevertheless had many conversations which I promptly 
wrote up and will pass on to you. 

5. On the first day our question was how all goods can be equal if 
they come in three different kinds. Certain goods, as our school thinks, 
are primary (e.g., joy, peace, the safety of the fatherland); certain goods 
are secondary, being manifested in unfortunate circumstances (e.g., the 
endurance of torture and self-control when seriously ill). We will wish the 

1 Yergi], Aeneid 5.344 


former goods for ourselves unconditionally and the latter only if necessary. 
There are in addition tertiary goods (e.g., a decorous gait, an expression 
which is sedate and proper, and a posture which is suitable for a man of 
good sense). 

6. How can these be equal to each other when some are to be chosen 
and others are to be avoided? 

If we want to distinguish them, let us go back to the primary good and 
reflect on what it is like. It is a mind which (i) contemplates the truth, (ii) 
is experienced in the matter of what should be pursued and what avoided, 
(iii) assigns values to things in accordance with nature and not on the basis 
of mere opinion, (iv) involves itself in the whole cosmos and directs its 
reflection to all of its [i.e., the cosmos's] actions, (v) is focussed on thought 
and action in a balanced manner, (vi) is great, energetic, unconquered by 
hardship and pleasures alike and submissive to neither circumstance, (vii) 
rising above everything which happens to befall it, (viii) is very beautiful, 
well ordered with regard to both charm and strength, (ix) is sound and 
sober, undisturbed and fearless, immune to violent blows, neither elated 
nor depressed by the events of fortune. Virtue is this kind of mind. 

7. This is what it looks like if it is considered all at once and displays the 
whole of itself. But it does have many appearances which are deployed in 
accordance with different situations in life and its actions. Virtue itself does 
not become either less or greater. For the highest good cannot shrink nor 
can virtue backslide. But it is transformed into many different qualities, 
shaped according to the disposition of the actions which it is to undertake. 

8. Virtue colours and assimilates to itself whatever it touches; it adorns 
actions, friendships, sometimes even whole households which it has come 
into and regulated. Whatever it has håndled it makes loveable, outstanding, 
admirable. And so its power and magnitude cannot rise higher, since what 
is greatest has no room for growth. You will find nothing straighter than 
the straight, nothing truer than the true, nothing more balanced than what 
is balanced. 

9. Every virtue consists in a limit, and the limit has a fixed measure. 
Constancy has no room to increase any more than integrity or truth or trust- 
worthiness. What can accrue to the perfect? Nothing; otherwise, that to 
which there was accrual wasn't perfect in the first place. Therefore nothing 
can accrue to virtue, which, if anything can be added, was defective in the 
first place. The honourable too admits of no increase, for it exists because 
of the characteristics I have mentioned. What then? Don't you think that 
the fitting and the just and the lawful are of the same type, bounded by 
definite limits? The ability to increase is a mark of something imperfect. 

LETTER 66 17 

10. Every good is subject to the same terms. Private and public Utility 
are linked, to the same extent, good heavens, as what is praiseworthy and 
what is choiceworthy are inseparable. Therefore the virtues are equal to 
each other and so are the works of virtue and all people who have attained 
the virtues. 

11. Since piants and animals are mortal, their virtues too are fragile, 
transitory, and unstable. They leap forward and fall back and thus are not 
given a consistent value. But we use one standard for the human virtues, 
since right reason is one and straightforward. Nothing is more divine than 
the divine, nothing more heavenly than the heavenly. 

12. Mortal things are depleted and pass away, they are worn down 
and they grow, they are emptied out and refilled; and so they have an 
inconsistency which comports well with their unstable condition; divine 
things have a single nature. But reason is nothing but a part of the divine 
breath plunged into the human body; if reason is divine, and no good 
is without reason, then everything good is divine. Further, there is no 
distinction among divine things, and so there is also no distinction among 
good things. Therefore joy and a brave, determined endurance of torture 
are equal; for in each there is the same greatness of mind; in the one it is 
calm and relaxed and in the other it is aggressive and tense. 

13. What? Do you not think that the virtue of the man who bravely 
storms the enemies' walls and of the man who endures the siege with 
tremendous long-suffering are equal? Great was Scipio, who surrounded 
and blockaded Numantia and drove to suicide the enemy he could not 
defeat; great too was the resolve of the besieged, which knew that someone 
for whom death is an open prospect and who breathes his last in the 
embrace of freedom is not completely surrounded. The other [virtues] are 
just as equal to each other: tranquillity, straightforwardness, generosity, 
constancy, equanimity, endurance. For one virtue underlies them all, a 
virtue which makes the mind straight and unswerving. 

14. 'What, then? Is there no difference between joy and the unbending 
endurance of pains?' None, as far as the virtues themselves are concerned, 
but there is a very big difference between the circumstances in which each 
virtue is displayed. In the one case there is a natural ease and relaxation 
of the mind, and in the other an unnatural pain. Therefore those things 
which admit of a very great difference are intermediates; virtue is the same 
in both. 

1 5. The raw material does not change the virtue. Tough and demanding 
material does not make it worse, nor is it made better by cheerful and light- 
hearted material; it must, therefore, be equal. In both cases what is done is 


done with equal correctness, equal prudence, equal honour. Therefore the 
goods are equal, and beyond these limits the one person cannot comport 
himself better in his joy nor can the other comport himself better in his 
pain. And two things than which nothing can be better are equal. 

1 6. For if things extrinsic to virtue can either diminish it or enhance it, 
then what is honourable ceases to be the sole good. If you grant this, then 
the honourable has utterly perished. Why? I will tell you: because nothing 
is honourable which is done by someone who is reluctant or compelled. 
Everything honourable is voluntary. Mix it with foot-dragging, complaint, 
hesitation, fear — it has lost what is best in itself, its contentment. What is 
not free cannot be honourable, for if something is afraid it is a slave. 

17. Everything honourable is untroubled, calm. If it rejects anything, 
laments it, if it judges that something is bad, then it has admitted 
disturbance and is enmeshed in great dissension. From one side the sight 
of what is straight beckons, from the other unease about what is bad pulls 
him back. And so he who is setting out to do something honourably should 
not think that any of the obstacles is bad, even if he thinks it dispreferred, 
but he should be willing and eager to do it. Everything honourable is 
autonomous and uncompelled, pure and mixed with nothing bad. 

18. I know what the reply to me might be at this point. 'Are you trying 
to persuade us of the proposition that it makes no difference whether 
someone experiences joy or lies upon the rack and wears out his torturer?' 
I could reply that Epicurus too says that the wise person, even if he 
is burned in the bull of Phalaris, will cry out, 'This is pleasant and it 
is nothing to me!' Why are you surprised if I say that the goods are 
equal <of two people, the one reclining at a dinner party> and the other 
standing most bravely amidst tortures, when Epicurus makes an even 
more incredible claim, that it is pleasant to be tortured? 

1 g. But I will in faet reply that there is a very great difference between 
joy and pain; if someone were to ask me for my selection, then I would 
pursue the one and avoid the other. The one is natural and the other 
unnatural. As long as they are assessed in this manner, they differ from 
each other by a big margin; but when it comes to virtue, each instance of 
virtue is equal, the one accompanied by happy circumstances and the one 
accompanied by regrettable circumstances. 

20. Aggravation and pain and anything else which is dispreferred have 
no weight; they are overwhelmed by virtue. Just as the brilliance of the sun 
obscures very small lights, so virtue, by its magnitude, crushes and stifies 
pains, annoyances, and injustices. And wherever virtue shines, anything 
which appears without it is there extinguished. Dispreferred things, when 

LETTER 66 19 

they co-occur with virtue, make no more impact than a rain shower does 
on the ocean. 

21. In order for you to see that this is so: a good man will rush in to 
every noble deed without any hesitation. Though the executioner might 
be standing there, the torturer and his fire, he will carry on and consider 
not what he is about to suffer but what he is about to accomplish, and 
he will entrust himself to an honourable situation as to a good man. He 
will adjudge it a source of benefit to himself, of safety, of prosperity. A 
situation which is honourable, but at the same time bitter and harsh, will 
play the same role in his thinking as a good man who is poor, or an exile, 
<or starving> and pale. 

22. Come then, put on the one side a good man overflowing with wealth, 
and opposite him a good man who has nothing, but with everything within 
himself. Each man will be equally good, even if their fortunes are unequal. 
As I said, we make the same judgement of situations as we do of people. 
Virtue is equally praiseworthy when situated in a strong and free body 
and when in one that is sick and in chains. 

23. Therefore you won't praise your own virtue any the more if fortune 
gives you a sound body than if it is maimed in some respect. Otherwise, 
it will be like valuing the master on the basis of his slaves' livery. For all 
those things over which chance exercises power are servile: money, body, 
public office — they are weak, transient, mortal, unreliable possessions. 
On the other hånd, the things which are free and invincible works of 
virtue are those which are no more worth pursuing if they are treated 
more kindly by fortune and no less worth pursuing if they are afflicted by 
some unfairness in the world. 

24. Pursuit is to a situation what friendship is to people. You would 
not, I think, love a good man who is rich more than one who is poor, 
nor one who is strong and muscular more than one who is skinny and 
weak. Therefore, you would not pursue or love a situation more if it were 
light-hearted and trouble-free than if it were conflicted and laborious. 

25. Or if this is the case, then of two men who are equally good you will 
cherish more the one who is sleek and well groomed than the one who is 
dirty and bristly; then by this route you will get to the point where you 
cherish more the man who is sound in all his limbs and free of wounds 
than one who is weak or blind in one eye; little by little your fussiness 
will advance until, of two equally just and prudent men you will prefer 
the one with the fancy haircut and curls. When virtue is equal in both, 
the inequality of other factors disappears; for all these other things are not 
parts but adjuncts. 


26. Surely no one will wield such unfair judgement with regard to his 
children that he would cherish more a healthy son than a sick one, one who 
is tall and striking than one who is short or middle-sized? Beasts do not 
discriminate among their offspring and they give suck to them all equally; 
birds share the food equally [among their chicks]. Ulysses hastened home 
to the rocks of his beloved Ithaca just as Agamemnon did to the noble 
walls of Mycenae; for no one loves his homeland because it is great, but 
because it is his own. 

27. What is the relevance of this? To show you that virtue looks upon 
all its works with the same eyes, as though they were its offspring, is 
equally kind to all — indeed, is more lavish to those who are struggling, 
since parental love inclines more towards those whom it pities. It is not 
that virtue has greater love for those of its works which it sees afflicted and 
oppressed, but like good parents it does embrace and cherish them more 

28. Why is no good greater than any other? Because nothing fits better 
than the fitting, and nothing is flatter than what is flat. You cannot say 
that one thing is more equal to something than another; therefore you also 
cannot say that anything is more honourable than what is honourable. 

29. But if the nature of all the virtues is equal, then the three kinds 
of goods are on an equal footing. What I am saying is that rejoicing in a 
self-controlled manner and feeling pain in a self-controlled manner are on 
an equal footing. Light-heartedness in one context does not outweigh the 
steadfastness of mind which swallows groans under torture. Those goods 
are choiceworthy, these are admirable, but nevertheless both are equal, 
because whatever in them is dispreferred is obliterated by the impact of a 
much greater good. 

30. Whoever thinks that these goods are unequal is turning his eyes 
away from the virtues themselves and considering externals. True goods 
have the same weight and the same extent; the false ones contain a 
great deal of empty space, and so they are impressive and big when 
you look straight at them, but when they are put on the scales they 

31. So it is, Lucilius. Whatever genuine reason vouches for is solid and 
long-lasting, strengthens the mind and raises it to great heights where it 
will remain forever. The objects of empty praise, things which are good 
only in the opinion of the crowd, produce conceit in those who rejoice over 
vanities. Again, those things which are feared as being bad strike terror 
into their minds — they are driven by the mere appearance of danger, as 
wild animals are. 

LETTER 66 21 

32. Therefore each of these things groundlessly excites and depresses 
the mind; those things are not worthy of joy nor are their opposites worthy 
of fear. Only reason is unchangeable and firm in its judgement. For it 
does not obey the senses but commands them. Reason is equal to reason, 
just as the straight is equal to the straight. So too virtue is equal to virtue, 
since virtue is nothing except straight reason. All the virtues are instances 
of reason; they are reason if they are straight, and if they are straight they 
are equal. 

33. The quality of actions is determined by the corresponding reasoning; 
therefore all of them are equal. For since they are similar to the reasoning, 
they are also similar to each other. But I say that actions are similar 
to each other in so far as they are honourable and straight; still, they 
will have significant differences since the raw material varies; it is more 
generous in one case and more constrained in another; high-born in one 
case and base-born in another; affects many in one case, few in another. 
Still, in all these circumstances that which is best is equal: the actions are 

34. Similarly, all good men are equal in so far as they are good but 
still have differences in age (one is older, another younger), in bodily 
endowment (one is attractive, another ugly), and in circumstance (one is 
rich, another poor, one is influential and powerful, well known to various 
cities and peoples, and another is unknown to most people and obscure). 
But with regard to that because of which they are good they are equal. 

35. The sensory capacity does not form judgements about good and 
bad things; it doesn't know what is useful and what is useless. It cannot 
reach a verdict unless it is brought to the scene of the action. It can neither 
foresee the future nor recall the past. It has no inkling of consequence. 
Yet from it are woven the order and sequence of events and the unity of 
a life which will run straight. Hence it is reason which is the arbiter of 
what is good and bad; it puts a low value on things which are foreign and 
external and judges that things which are neither good nor bad are trivial 
and frivolous add-ons, since for reason all good is situated in the mind. 

36. However, reason does regard certain goods as being primary, goods 
which it approaches on purpose: for example, victory, good children, the 
salvation of our fatherland; others it thinks of as secondary, goods which 
only turn up in adverse circumstances: for example, suffering illness, fire, 
or exile with equanimity; yet others it thinks of as intermediate, things 
which are no more according to nature than they are contrary to nature: 
for example, prudent walking, orderly sitting. For it is no less according 
to nature to sit than to stand or to walk. 


37. The first two kinds of good are distinct. For the primary are 
according to nature (rejoicing at the dutiful behaviour of one's children, 
the preservation of one's fatherland), while the secondary goods are 
contrary to nature (bravely resisting torture and enduring thirst when 
disease burns up one's innards). 

38. 'What then? Is anything which is contrary to nature good?' Not at 
all. But sometimes the circumstances in which the good arises are contrary 
to nature. For being wounded and melting over the fire and being afflicted 
with poor health are contrary to nature, but it is according to nature to 
preserve one's mental vigour amidst them. 

39. To set forth my point briefly: the raw material for the good is 
sometimes contrary to nature, but the good never is, since no good exists 
without reason and reason follows nature. 'So, what is reason?' The 
imitation of nature. 'What is the highest good for human beings?' To 
comport oneself in accordance with the will of nature. 

40. The objection is put, 'There is no doubt that peace is happier if it is 
never threatened than if it is regained by bloody battle. There is no doubt,' 
it is maintained, 'that unthreatened good health is a happier state of affairs 
than health salvaged by special effort and endurance from serious illnesses 
which threaten the most dreadful outcomes. In the same way there is no 
doubt that joy is a greater good than a mind straining to endure the pain 
of wounds or burns.' 

41. Not in the least. For the things which are subject to chance admit 
of a very great deal of difference, since they are evaluated on the basis of 
their use to those who choose them. Goods have but one purpose, to agree 
with nature. This is equal in them all. When we concur with someone's 
opinion in the senate it cannot be said that one senator gave assent more 
than another did. All supported the same opinion. I say the same for the 
virtues: they all assent to nature. I say the same for goods: they all assent 
to nature. 

42. One man dies in youth, another in old age, another right in infancy 
with no chance to do more than to glimpse life. All of them were mortal 
in equal measure, even if death allowed the lives of some to carry on for 
quite a while, cut short the lives of others at the height of their powers, 
and cut off others right at the beginning. 

43. One man is released in the middle of dinner; someone else's death 
was a mere extension of sleep; having sex snuffed out another. Contrast to 
them men who are run through by the sword, who perish by snake bites, 
who are crushed by a collapsing building, or who are twisted up little by 
little as their sinews slowly contract. One can say that some people have a 

LETTER 66 23 

better death and that others have a worse end. But nevertheless death is 
equal for all. The way they get there varies, but their destination is one. 
No death is greater or lesser; in all cases it has the same boundary: it has 
put an end to one's life. 

44. I am telling you the same thing about goods. One good is situated 
amidst unadulterated pleasures, another amidst harsh and bitter circum- 
stances; the former guides fortune's favour, the latter masters her violence. 
The two are equally good, although the former goes along a smooth and 
gentle path and the latter along a difficult one. All have the same end: they 
are good, they are praiseworthy, they accompany virtue and reason; virtue 
makes equal everything it acknowledges as its own. 

45. You have no good reason to be astonished that this is one of our 
doctrines. In Epicurus there are two goods which make up that highest 
and blessed state: that the body be free of pain and the mind free of upset. 
These goods do not get bigger once they are complete: for how could 
what is complete grow? The body is free of pain; what can be added to 
this painlessness? The mind is consistent with itself and calm; what can 
be added to this tranquillity? 

46. Just as a clear sky, once it is cleansed and has an unalloyed splendour, 
does not admit of any further brightness, so too a person's condition is 
perfect if he cares for his body and mind and blends his good from both; 
and he achieves his greatest wish if his mind is free of storms and his 
body free of pain. If any additional enticements come along, they do not 
increase the highest good but they spice it up, so to speak, and provide 
seasoning. For the unqualified good of human nature is satisfied by peace 
in body and mind. 

47. I will point out to you even now that in Epicurus there is a division 
of goods which is quite similar to the one in our school. In Epicurus there 
are some things which he would prefer to have come to him (such as ease 
in the body, free from all discomfort, and a relaxation of the mind as it 
rejoices in the contemplation of its own goods) and others which, though 
he would rather they did not happen, he nevertheless praises and approves 
of — like that endurance of poor health and most grievous pains which I 
was mentioning just now. That is how Epicurus spent that final and most 
blessed day of his life! For he said that he was enduring the torments of 
his bladder and an inflamed stomach which did not admit of any further 
increase in pain but that it was a happy day despite it all. However, one 
cannot be having a happy day unless one is in possession of the highest 


48. Therefore there are even in Epicurus' theory the kind of goods 
which one would rather not experience but which are worth embracing 
and praising and treating as equal to the highest goods, since that is how 
things worked out. It cannot be denied that the good which put the final 
touch on a happy life and for which Epicurus expressed his gratitude in 
his last breath is equal to the highest good. 

49. Allow me, my excellent Lucilius, to say something even bolder. If 
any goods could be greater than others, then I would have preferred those 
which seem harsher to those which are soft and effeminate, I would have 
said that they were greater. It is a greater thing to demolish hardships than 
it is to regulate good fortune. 

50.I know that it is by the same rationality that one takes prosperity well 
and misfortune bravely. There can be equal courage in him who sleeps 
confidently outside the walls when there are no enemy raids and in him 
who lands on his knees after his hamstrings have been severed and does 
not abandon his weapons: 'bravo for your courage' is something we say to 
those covered in blood even as they return from battle. And so I would 
rather praise those goods which are tested and courageous and which have 
been brawling against fortune. 

5 1 . Should I hesitate over whether to give greater praise to that mangled 
and burned hånd of Mucius than to the healthy hånd of even the bravest 
man? He stood there, holding in contempt the enemy and the flames and 
he watched his hånd melting away in the enemy's stove, until Porsenna 
envied the glory of the man whose punishment he had urged and ordered 
that Mucius' hånd be removed from the fire against his will. 

52. How could I not count this good among the primary ones and regard 
it as being greater than the goods which are safe and untried by fortune 
by as big a margin as it is rarer to conquer the enemy by a ruined hånd 
than it is to do so by an armed one. 'What, then,' you say, 'are you going 
to wish for this good for yourself?' Why not? Such a deed cannot be done 
by anyone who cannot also wish for it. 

53. Or should I rather wish that I might hold out my hånds so that 
my male sex toys can massage them? That some woman (or somebody 
turned into woman from a man) might stroke my fingers? Why shouldn't 
I think that Mucius is luckier because he håndled the fire as though he 
had entrusted that very hånd to a masseur? He restored to integrity all 
his previous errors: unarmed and maimed he ended the war and with that 
mangled hånd he conquered two kings. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. You often ask my advice about particular matters, forgetting that 
we are separated by a wide ocean. Since the most important part of 
advice depends on the circumstances, it must follow that on certain 
matters my opinion reaches you when the opposite advice has already 
become preferable. For advice is adjusted to situations; our situations are 
in movement, or rather in flux. Therefore advice should be generated 
immediately beforehand. And even this is too late. Let it be generated, as 
they say, right on the spot. However, I will show you how advice can be 

2. Whenever you want to know what is to be avoided or what is to 
be sought, look to the highest good, the purpose of your entire life. For 
whatever we do ought to agree with that. Only someone who has before 
him a general purpose for his whole life will put individual things in 
order. No matter how ready one's paints might be, no one will produce a 
likeness unless he has a clear notion of what he wants to paint. So we make 
mistakes because we deliberate about the parts of life; no one deliberates 
about the whole. 

3. He who wants to shoot an arrow ought to know what he is aiming 
at and then direct and guide the weapon with his hånd. Our counsels go 
astray because they do not have a target to be aimed at. If you don't know 
what harbour you sail for, no wind is favourable. 

Because we live by chance, chance necessarily has great power over our 

4. However, it turns out that certain people do not know that they in 
faet know certain things. Just as we often look for the very people we are 
standing beside, in the same way we generally do not know that the goal 
and highest good is right in front of us. You don't need many words or a 
roundabout path to infer what the highest good is. If I may say, it should 
be pointed out with one's finger and not scattered all around. For what is 
the point of breaking it up into small bits when you can say, 'the highest 
good is that which is honourable', and (you will be even more struck by 


this claim) 'the only good is what is honourable; all the others are false and 
counterfeit goods'. 

5. If you convince yourself of this and fall passionately in love with 
virtue (just loving it is not enough), then whatever befalls because of virtue 
will bring good fortune and happiness to you, no matter what others may 
think of it. Torture (if only you lie there more serene than the torturer 
himself) and sickness (provided that you don't curse your luck and give 
in to the illness) and in a word everything which other people think of as 
bad — all of these things will be tamed and turn out for the best, if you 
rise above them. Let this much be clear: that there is nothing good except 
the honourable. Everything which is 'inconvenient' in its own right will 
be labelled 'good' provided that virtue brings it honour. 

6. Many people think that we are promising more than human nature 
can handle — and not without reason. For they are considering the body. 
Let them turn their attention to the mind and they will soon be measuring 
humans by the standard of god. Raise yourself up, my excellent Lucilius, 
and leave behind those grammar-school philosophers who bring something 
which is truly splendid down to the level of syllables and, by teaching 
petty matters, depress and wear out the mind. You will come to resemble 
those who discovered those things, not those who teach them and make 
philosophy difficult rather than great. 

7. Socrates, who brought all of philosophy back to ethics and said that 
the highest wisdom is to distinguish good from bad, said 'If I have any 
influence with you at all, follow them in order to be happy, and let some 
think you a fool. Let whoever wishes insult you and harm you, but you still 
won't suffer at all provided that you have virtue. If,' he says, 'you want to 
be happy, if you want to be a genuinely good man, let someone hold you 
in contempt.' No one will achieve this if he hasn't himself held all things 
in contempt first and come to treat all goods as equal. For there is no good 
without the honourable and the honourable is equal in all instances. 

8. 'What, then? Is there no difference between Cato winning the election 
for praetor and his losing it? Is there no difference between Cato being 
defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus and his winning? Is the good he gets 
from being unconquerable when his faction is conquered equal to the good 
he gets from returning to his homeland as victor and making arrangements 
for a peace settlement?' Why shouldn't they be equal? For it is by the 
same virtue that bad fortune is overcome and good fortune is regulated. 
But virtue cannot be greater or lesser — it is of uniform standing. 

9. 'But Gnaeus Pompeius will lose his army, and that most splendid 
glory of the state, the aristocracy, and the front line of the Pompeian 

LETTER 71 27 

faction, the Senate bearing arms, will all be crushed in one battle and the 
remains of so great a power will scatter all over the world — part of it will 
collapse in Egypt, part in Africa, part in Spain. The wretched state cannot 
even manage to collapse only once.' 

10. Suppose all of this happens: familiarity with the terrain in his own 
kingdom doesn't help Juba, and neither does the determined courage of 
his people fighting for their king; the loyalty of the citizens of Utica fails, 
beaten down by misfortunes; and the fortune of his family heritage deserts 
Scipio in Africa — it was determined long ago that Cato should suffer no 

11. 'But still, he was beaten.' Count this too among the defeats suffered 
by Cato — he will bear the obstacles to his victory with the same spirit that 
he bears the obstacles to his praetorship. On the same day that he lost the 
election, he played; on the night when he was about to die, he read. He 
put the same value on losing the praetorship and on losing his life. He was 
convinced that everything which might happen should be endured. 

12. Why wouldn't he endure that political change with a brave and 
steady mind? For what is there which is immune to the risk of change? 
Not the earth, nor the sky nor the whole structure of this cosmos, even 
though it is guided by the agency of god. It will not always preserve its 
present order; some day it will be driven out of this path. 

13. All things develop at fixed times. They have to be born, to grow, and 
to pass away. Whatever you see pass by over our heads and all things we 
rely on and stand on, as though they were completely stable, these things 
will waste away and come to an end. Everything gets old in its own way. 
Nature sends them to the same destination at different rates; whatever is 
will someday not be, but it won't perish — it will be dissolved. 

14. For us, being dissolved is to perish, for we limit our gaze to what is 
right next to us and our mind, which is dull and has devoted itself to the 
body, does not look ahead to things further off Otherwise, if it expected 
that (<like> everything else) life and death take turns, that what is put 
together dissolves and that what is dissolved is put together, and that in 
this work the eternal craft of a god who governs all things is at work, then 
it would endure with greater courage the death of itself and those dear 

15. And so like Marcus Cato, when it has thought its way through 
life, it will say, 'the whole human race, present and future, is doomed to 
death. Of all the cities which flourish anywhere and are great adornments 
for foreign empires it shall be asked "where were they?" and they will 
be eliminated by various kinds of destruction. Some will be destroyed by 


wars, others eaten up by laziness, by peace which has degenerated into 
sloth, and by luxury, a thing which is pernicious even to great wealth and 
power. A sudden flooding of the sea will carry off all these fertile fieids, or 
they will be carried off by the sudden subsidence as the ground falls into a 
subterranean cavern. So why should I get outraged or grieve if I meet the 
fate shared by all just a little ahead of the rest?' 

1 6. Let a great mind obey god and let it endure without hesitation 
whatever the law of the universe commands. Either it is released into a 
better life, to live more clearly and calmly among the divine, or at least it 
will be free of any future inconvenience if it is mixed again with nature 
and returns to the cosmos. Therefore the honourable life of Marcus Cato 
is no greater good than his honourable death, since virtue cannot be 
increased. Socrates said that truth and virtue are the same thing. Just as 
the former does not become greater so too virtue does not either. It has its 
complement; it is full. 

17. Therefore there is no reason for you to be amazed at the claim that 
all goods are equal, both those which are to be chosen on purpose and 
those which are only to be chosen if circumstances dictate. For if you 
admit that goods are unequal, so that you count courageous endurance of 
torture among things which are lesser goods, then you will also count it 
among things which are bad and you will say that Socrates was unhappy 
in prison, that Cato was unhappy when he tore open his wounds more 
courageously than he had inflicted them in the first place, that Regulus 
was most unfortunate of all when he paid the penalty for keeping his word 
even to the enemy. But no one has had the nerve to say this, not even the 
most degenerate of men; they say that he isn't happy, but still they say 
that he isn't miserable either. 

18. The Old Academics concede that he is happy even amidst these 
tortures, but not completely or absolutely happy — but this cannot be 
accepted. Unless he is happy he is not in the highest good. But the highest 
good has no level above it, provided that it contains virtue, provided 
that adverse circumstances do not diminish it, provided that it remains 
safe even as the body is shattered; it still remains. I understand by 
virtue something that is bold and lofty, which is stimulated by whatever 
threatens it. 

19. Certainly it is wisdom which pours into us and passes on to us this 
spirit, which young men of noble temperament, inspired by the beauty 
of an honourable deed, often adopt, with the result that they hold all 
contingency in contempt. Wisdom will convince us that the only good is 
what is honourable and that this cannot be lessened or intensified any more 

LETTER 71 29 

than you can bend the ruier which is normally used to test straightness. 
Whatever you change in it is a detriment to its straightness. 

20. We will make the same claim about virtue. This too is straight; it 
does not admit of bending. It is rigid. What could be made more taut? It is 
virtue which passes judgement on everything; nothing passes judgement 
on it. If it cannot itself be any straighter, then neither can any of the things 
which are straight because of it be straighter than the others. They must 
match virtue and so they are equal. 

21. 'What, then?' you say, 'are reclining at a dinner party and being 
tortured equal?' Does this seem remarkable to you? You might be more 
amazed at the following: reclining at a dinner party is bad and reclining 
on the rack is good — if the former is done shamefully and the latter 
honourably. It is not the raw material which makes them good or bad, but 
the virtue; wherever it appears, everything is of the same dimensions and 
of the same value. 

22. The person who assesses everyone's mind on the basis of his own is 
now shaking his fists in my face, because I claim that the goods of one who 
sits honourably in judgement are equal to those of <someone who behaves 
honourably as a defendant>, because I claim that the goods of him who 
holds a triumph are equal to those of the person who is carried before 
his chariot with unconquered mind. They think that anything that they 
cannot themselves do cannot be done. They pass judgement on virtue by 
the standards of their own weakness. 

23. Why are you surprised if it is useful, sometimes even pleasant, to be 
burned, wounded, slaughtered, or imprisoned? Frugality is a punishment 
for someone addicted to luxury, for the sluggard work is like a penalty, 
the fop takes pity on the hard-working man, and it is sheer torture for 
the slothful person to study. In the same way we think that the things at 
which we are all weak are harsh and intolerable, and we forget that for 
many people it is torment to do without wine or to be awoken at dawn. 
Those things are not difficult by nature, but we are soft and weak. 

24. One must pass judgement on great things with a great mind; 
otherwise what is actually our own defect will seem to be the defect of 
those things. It is thus that some things which are absolutely straight, 
when they are put into water, appear to observers as being curved and 
bent. It doesn't just matter what you look at, but how. Our mind has weak 
vision when it comes to looking at the truth. 

25. Give me a young man unspoiled and with a lively wit; he will say 
that he thinks that the person who bears all the burdens of adversity with 
neck unbowed and who rises above fortune is the more fortunate. It is not 


surprising if he is not troubled amidst tranquillity; be amazed at the faet 
that one person is in excellent spirits where everyone else is downcast, 
that he stands where everyone else is prostrate. 

26. What is it that is bad in torture, what is bad in the other things 
which we call adversities? Just this, I think, that the mind capitulates, 
bends under the load and caves in. None of this can happen to the wise 
man: he stands up straight under any weight. No situation diminishes 
him; none of the things which are bearable upsets him. For he does not 
complain that whatever can befall a person has befallen him. He knows 
his strength; he knows that he is built for carrying burdens. 

27. I do not deny that the wise person is a human being nor do I 
exempt him from pain like some rock which has no feeling. I remem- 
ber that he is made up of two parts, one irrational — this is bitten, 
burned, pained — and the other rational — this has unshaken convictions, 
is fearless and unconquered. The highest good of a human being is 
located in the latter. Before it is filled out, there is an unstable rest- 
lessness in the mind; but when it has been completed its stability is 

28. And so the beginner and he who makes maximal progress and 
cultivates virtue, even if he approaches the complete good but has not 
yet put the finishing touches on it, will sometimes backslide and slacken 
somewhat his mental concentration; for he has not yet gotten past the 
uncertain territory and even now is on slippery ground. But he who is truly 
happy and whose virtue is fully developed loves himself most when he has 
made the bravest efforts, not only bears but even embraces things which 
others would fear, if they are the price to be paid for some honourable and 
appropriate action; he greatly prefers to hear 'how much better you are' 
than 'how much luckier you are'. 

29. Now I come to the point to which your anticipation summons me. 
So that our virtue should not seem to roam beyond the nature of things, 
[we admit that] the wise person will tremble and feel pain and grow pale. 
For these are all bodily feelings. So where is misfortune, where is the true 
badness? Obviously, it will be there if these feelings drag down the mind, 
if they bring it to an admission that it is enslaved, if they inflict on it regret 
for being what it is. 

30. The wise person indeed conquers fortune with his virtue, but many 
who claim to have wisdom have often been terrified by the most trivial 
threats. Here the fault is our own, since we demand the same thing 
of a wise person and of a progressor. I am still urging on myself the 
things which I praise, but I don't yet convince myself about them. Even 

LETTER 71 31 

if I had convinced myself, I would not yet have things in readiness or 
so thoroughly practiced that they could successfully confront all chance 

31. Just as wool accepts some colours on one dipping but cannot 
absorb others unless it has been repeatedly steeped and boiled, so too our 
temperament immediately shows the results of some studies as soon as 
it has been exposed to them, but this one shows none of the results it 
promises unless it penetrates deeply and settles for a long time, unless it 
doesn't just colour the mind but dyes it. 

32. The point can be communicated quickly and in a very few words: 
the only good is virtue (certainly there is no good without virtue), and 
virtue itself is located in our better part, that is the rational part. So what 
will this virtue be? A true and immovable judgement; for from this come 
the impulses of the mind, and by this every presentation which stimulates 
impulse is made transparent. 

33. It will be in accordance with this judgement to make the judgement 
that all things touched by virtue are both good and equal to each other. 
The goods of the body are certainly good for the body, but they are not 
good overall. They will have a certain value, but they will not possess 
excellence: they will differ from each other by substantial margins, and 
some will be smaller, others greater. 

34. And we must also admit that there are big differences among those 
who pursue wisdom. One person has already made so much progress that 
he can lift his eyes against fortune, but not with resolute consistency (for 
his eyes are downcast when stunned by excessive brightness); another has 
progressed so much that he can meet her gaze — unless he has already 
reached perfection and is full of self-confidence. 

35. Things which are incomplete must totter and alternate between 
making progress and sinking or collapsing. But they will sink, unless they 
have made a firm resolution to go forward and press on. If they slacken 
their zeal and their firm concentration even a bit, they must backslide. No 
one finds moral progress where he last left it. 

36. So let us press on and persevere; more remains than we have 
squandered, but a great part of progress consists in the desire to make 
progress. I am fully aware of this, that I want it and want it with my whole 
mind. I see that you too are enthusiastic for it and hastening towards the 
finest destination with a great impetus. Let us hurry. This is how life at 
last becomes a benefit; otherwise it is just waiting around — a shameful 
kind of stalling by people who pass their time amidst shameful practices. 


Let us strive to make all of our time our own. But it will not be our own 
unless we ourselves start to belong to ourselves. 

37. When will it come about that we hold both good and bad fortune 
in contempt, when will it come about that all our passions are suppressed 
and brought under our own control and we can utter this claim, 'I have 
conquered'? Whom do you wish to conquer? Not the Persians nor the 
remote Medes nor any warlike peoples there may be beyond the Dahae, 
but greed, ambition, and the fear of death which has itself conquered those 
who conquer foreign races. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1 . You threaten me with hostility if I leave you in the dark about any 
of my daily activities. Look how straightforwardly I share my life with 
you. I will entrust you with this information too. I am studying with a 
philosopher, and indeed I have been attending his school for five days 
now and hearing his lectures starting in the early afternoon. You say, 'It's 
a great time of life for that!' Well of course it's a great time of life. What 
could be more foolish than not to learn just because you haven't been 
learning for a long time? 

2. 'What? Should I do the same as the gilded youth do?' I'm in good shape 
if this is the only disgrace that mårs my old age. This school accepts people 
of all ages. 'Are we to grow old only to follow the young?' Fil go to the the- 
atre in my old age and I'll ride to the circus. I won't miss a single gladiatorial 
fight. Am I supposed to blush about attending on a philosopher? 

3. You have to learn as long as you're ignorant; if we believe the maxim, 
that's as long as you live. This maxim coheres best with the following: you 
have to learn how to live as long as you live. Anyway, I also teach them 
something at the school. You ask what I teach? That even an old man has 
to learn. 

4. But every time I go to the school I feel ashamed of the human race. 
As you know, while going to the house of Metronax one has to pass 
right by the Neapolitan theatre. It certainly is packed and there is hotly 
contested debate about who is a good piper. Even a Greek trumpeter and 
an announcer draw a crowd. By contrast, in the place where the good man 
is the topic of discussion, where the good man is what they learn about, 
there is a tiny audience and most people think that the students have no 
proper business to conduct — they are called useless and lazy. Let their 
mockery hit me too. I have to listen to the abuse of the ignorant with 
equanimity, and since I am going about honourable business I have to 
hold their contempt in contempt. 

5. Carry on, Lucilius, and hurry up, so you don't get into my situation 
and wind up learning as an old man. Actually, hurry all the more since 


you've already started in on a topic which you could scarcely master as 
an old man. 'How much progress will I achieve?' Only as much as you 

6. What are you waiting for? Wisdom doesn't come to anyone by chance. 
Money will come on its own; high office will be handed to you; maybe 
favour and rank will be heaped on you — but virtue will not drop into 
your lap. Nor is it learned by just a bit of work or by a small effort; but 
the work is worth it for someone aiming to possess every good thing all at 
once. For the honourable alone is good — you won't find anything true or 
reliable in the things that public opinion approves. 

7. 1 will explain to you why only the honourable is good (since you think 
I didn't accomplish very much with my earlier letter and believe this point 
was approved rather than proven) and I will condense what has been said 
on the topic. 

8. Everything depends on its own good. Productivity and the flavour of 
the wine commend a vine, speed commends a stag; you ask how strong a 
back draught animals have, for their sole function is to haul a load; in a 
dog the most important thing is keen smell if it is supposed to track beasts, 
running if it is supposed to catch them, boldness if it is to attack and bite 
them. In each thing, that for which it is born and by which it is judged 
ought to be its best. 

9. What is best in a human being? Reason. By this humans surpass the 
animals and follow the gods. Therefore perfected reason is our proper 
good; humans share all other traits to some degree with animals and 
piants. A human being is strong — so are lions. He is handsome — so are 
peacocks. He is swift — so are horses. I don't say that he is outdone in 
all these respects; I am not asking what his greatest feature is, but which 
one is his very own. He has a body — so do trees. He has impulse and 
voluntary motion — so do beasts and worms. He has a voice — but how 
much more ringing is the voice of dogs, how much sharper that of eagles, 
how much deeper that of bulls, how much sweeter and more flexible that 
of nightingales. 

10. What is proper to human beings? Reason. This, when it is straight 
and complete, has filled out the happiness of a human being. Therefore if 
each thing, when it has perfected its very own good, is praiseworthy and 
attains the goal of its own nature, and if reason is a human being's very 
own good, then if he has perfected this he is praiseworthy and has reached 
the goal of his own nature. This perfected reason is called virtue and this 
same thing is what is honourable. 

LETTER 76 35 

11. Thus the unique good in a human being is that which uniquely 
belongs to humans. For at this point we are asking not what is good but 
what is the good of a human being. If there is no other [unique trait] in 
human beings except reason, this will be their sole good, but it should be 
treated as offsetting everything else. If someone is bad, he will, I guess, 
meet with disapproval; if good then with approval, I guess. Therefore 
in human beings this is the primary and only thing by which he is both 
approved and disapproved of. 

12. You do not doubt whether this is good; you doubt whether it is 
the only good. If someone has everything else — health, wealth, many 
ancestral busts, a crowded foyer — but is admittedly bad, then you will 
disapprove of him. Similarly, if someone has none of the things I have 
mentioned, if he is lacking in money, in clients, in the nobility which 
derives from a long string of ancestors — but is admittedly good, then you 
will approve of him. Therefore, the sole good of a human being is that 
which, by its possession, makes him praiseworthy even if he is bereft of the 
rest and which by its absence causes condemnation and rejection despite 
an abundance of everything else. 

13. The situation for people is the same as it is for things. A ship is 
called good not if it has been painted with expensive colours or if its ram 
is covered with silver or gold or if its figurehead is inlaid with ivory or if 
it is heavily laden with treasure and regal wealth; but rather if it is stable, 
solid, tightly built with seams that keep water out, sturdy enough to resist 
the sea's attack, easy to steer, swift, and not swayed by the wind. 

14. You will say that a sword is good not if it has a gilded belt or its 
scabbard is studded with jewels; but rather if it has a fine cutting edge and 
a point which can pierce any armour. We don't ask how beautiful a ruier 
is, but how straight. Each thing is praised with reference to that against 
which it is judged and that which is proper to it. 

15. Therefore in a person too it is quite irrelevant how much land 
he tilis, how much money he has invested, how many clients greet him, 
how expensive a couch he reclines on, how translucent a cup he drinks 
from; what matters is how good he is. But he is good if his reason is fully 
deployed, straight, and adapted to the inclinations of his nature. 

16. This is termed virtue, that is, the honourable and the sole good of a 
human being. For since only reason completes a human being, only reason 
makes him perfectly happy. But this is the only good thing and the only 
thing by which he is made happy. We also say that those things which 
originate in virtue or are caused by it are good, i.e., all of its products. But 
it alone is good precisely because there is no good without it. 


17. If every good is in the mind, then whatever strengthens, exalts, or 
expands it is good. But virtue makes the mind stronger, loftier, and fuller. 
For other things which stimulate our desires also degrade the mind and 
make it weak; when they seem to raise it up, they are inflaming it and 
tricking it with their profound emptiness. Therefore the only good thing 
is that which makes the mind better. 

18. All our actions throughout our life are regulated by a consideration 
of what is honourable and shameful. Our reasoning about doing and not 
doing is guided by reference to them. Hl tell you what this is. A good 
man will do what he believes would be honourable for him to do, even if 
it is hard work; he will do it even if he suffers a loss; he will do it even 
if it is dangerous. Conversely, he will not do what is shameful, even if it 
gets him money, pleasure, or power. Nothing will keep him from what is 
honourable; nothing will entice him to shameful actions. 

19. Therefore, if he is going to pursue the honourable unconditionally 
and avoid the shameful unconditionally; and if he is going to look to these 
two things in every action of his life; and if there is no other good except 
the honourable nor anything bad except what is shameful; if only virtue 
is uncorrupted and it alone adheres to its course, then virtue is the only 
good and it cannot come to pass that it is not a good thing. It is immune 
to the risk of change. Folly creeps towards wisdom. Wisdom does not fall 
back into folly. 

20. I said, if you happen to recall, that many people impetuously have 
scorned the things which are generally desired or feared. A person has 
been found who would reject wealth; a person has been found who would 
put his hånd in the flames, whose laughter the torturer could not stop, 
who would shed no tear at his children's funeral, who would meet his own 
death untrembling. It was love, anger, and desire that insisted on courting 
dangers. Short-lived stubbornness driven on by some stimulus can do it. 
How much more can virtue do! Its strength is not impulsive or sudden, 
but consistent; its strength is long-lasting. 

21. It follows that the things which are often despised by the reckless 
and always by the wise are neither good nor bad. Therefore virtue itself 
is the only good; it walks proudly amidst good and bad fortune with deep 
contempt for both. 

22. If you do adopt the view that anything is good except what is 
honourable, then every virtue will be vulnerable; for no virtue can be 
secure if it looks to anything beyond itself. If this is the case, then this view 
conflicts with reason (the source of the virtues) and truth (which is nothing 
without reason). But any opinion which conflicts with truth is false. 

LETTER 76 37 

23. You might grant that a good man must have the greatest piety 
towards the gods. Therefore he will endure with equanimity whatever 
happens to him; for he will know that it happened under the divine law 
according to which all things progress. If this is so, his only good will be 
what is honourable — for in this lie his obedience to the gods, not flaring 
up in anger at unexpected events and bewailing his lot in life, but accepting 
fate with patience and obeying its commands. 

24. If anything except the honourable is good, then greed for life will 
dog us, and so will a greed for the things which equip our life — and that 
is unsustainable, limitless, unstable. Therefore the honourable, which has 
a limit, is the only good. 

25. We said that human life would turn out to be happier than that of 
the gods if things which are of no use to the gods are good, such as money 
and public office. Now add to that argument the consideration that if souls 
do persist when released from the body a condition awaits them which is 
happier than what they have while they sojourn in the body. Yet if the 
things we use by means of our bodies are good, then liberated souls will be 
worse off But it violates our confident belief if souls which are enclosed 
and besieged are happier than those which are free and entrusted to the 

26. I had also said that if those things are good which fall to the lot of 
men and brute animals alike, the brute animals will live a happy life. And 
that is absolutely impossible. All things are to be endured for the sake of 
what is honourable; but one would not have to do so if anything except 
the honourable were good. 

Although I had gone over these points quite fully in my earlier letter, I 
have here condensed them and given them a quick run-through. 

27. But this sort of view will never seem true to you unless you arouse 
your mind and ask of yourself: if circumstances should demand that you 
die for your country and purchase the well-being of all the citizens at the 
cost of your own, would you be ready to extend your neck not just with 
endurance but even cheerfully? If you are ready to do this, there is no 
other good; for you are giving up everything in order to have it. Consider 
how much being honourable commits you to: you will die for the state 
even if it means being ready to do so the minute you know it should be 

28. Sometimes one can take great pleasure from a splendid action, even 
if it is only for a very short time. Although no enjoyment derived from 
the action once done can reach someone who is dead and finished with 
human experience, nevertheless mere reflection upon the future action 


gives satisfaction, and when a man who is brave and just sets before 
himself as the reward for his death the freedom of his homeland and the 
well-being of everyone on whose behalf he sacrifices his life, he has the 
highest pleasure and gets enjoyment from his own danger. 

29. But even someone who is deprived of the joy which comes from 
reflection upon his last and greatest deed will plunge into death with no 
hesitation, content to aet correctly and piously. Confront him even now 
with the many considerations which might dissuade him, tell him 'Your 
deed will be quickly forgotten and the citizens will be ungrateful to you 
when they think of you.' He will answer you 'AU of that is beyond my 
job, and I only consider that; I know that this is honourable, and so I go 
wherever it leads and summons me.' 

30. So this alone is good and it is not only the perfected mind which is 
aware of it but also a mind which is noble and talented. Everything else is 
fickle and changeable, and so one worries even while possessing them. Even 
if fortune smiles and they are all heaped together, they weigh heavily on 
their masters and always oppress them; sometimes they even crush them. 

31. None of those whom you see clad in purpie is happy any more than 
those who are given a sceptre and robe on stage in order to play their 
roles in a tragedy. As soon as they make their entrance, carried along by 
the throng and wearing the high boots of tragedy, they immediately exit: 
they remove their boots and return to their normal size. None of those 
whom wealth and office elevate is actually tall. So why does he seem tall? 
You measure him together with his pedestal. A dwarf isn't tall though 
he stands on a mountaintop; a giant will retain his height even if he is 
standing in a well. 

32. We suffer from this mistake, this is how we are duped, because we 
don't evaluate anyone by what he is but we add to him the things by which 
he has been decorated. But when you want to undertake a true valuation 
of a person and want to know what he is like, do the inspection when he is 
naked. Let him set aside his inheritance, set aside his public offices and the 
other trickeries of fortune, let him shed his very body. Inspect his mind, 
what it is like, how great it is — whether it is great by its own resources or 
someone else's. 

33. If he looks at the flashing swords with unswerving eyes and if he 
knows that it makes no difference whether his life's breath exits through 
the mouth or the throat, call him happy. If, when he is threatened with 
physical torments — both those inflicted by chance and those inflicted by 
the injustice of the powerful — if he hears about prison, exile, and the 
empty fears of human minds calmly and says, 

LETTER 76 39 

no prospect of hardship comes to me new or unexpected 
I anticipated it all and have rehearsed it in the privacy of my mind. 

You make these threats today — I have always threatened myself and prepared my 

human self for human possibilities. 1 

34. Gen tie comes the blow of misfortune that has been anticipated. But 
to fools who trust fortune every prospect seems 'new and unexpected'. 
For the inexperienced a great part of the misfortune lies in the novelty. To 
understand this, reflect that people can endure what they thought were 
hardships more bravely when they have gotten used to them. 

35. And so a wise person gets used to future misfortunes and what other 
people make bearable by long suffering he makes bearable by prolonged 
thinking. Sometimes we hear the voices of inexperienced people saying, 'I 
knew this was in store for me.' The wise person knows that everything is 
in store for him. Whatever happened, he says 'I knew it.' 


1 Vergil, Aeneid 6.103—5. 


Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1. I had been sparing you and passing over all the knotty problems 
which still remained, satisfied with giving you a taste, as it were, of what 
our school says to prove that virtue alone is effective enough to complete 
the happy life. You are urging me to include all of the arguments which 
have been either devised by our school or thought up in order to ridicule 
us. If I can bring myself to do that, this won't be a letter but a whole book. 
I swear, over and over again, that I take no pleasure in proofs of this type; 
I am ashamed to go into a battle engaged on behalf of gods and humans 
armed with nothing but an awl. 

2. (a) 'He who is prudent is also self-controlled; (b) he who is self- 
controlled is also steadfast; (c) he who is steadfast is undisturbed; (d) he 
who is undisturbed is free of sadness; (e) he who is free of sadness is happy, 
(f) Therefore the prudent person is happy and prudence is sufficient for a 
happy life.' 

3 . Certain Peripatetics respond to this inference as follows: they in terpret 
'undisturbed' and 'steadfast' and 'free of sadness' as though we called 
'undisturbed' someone who is disturbed seldom and moderately, not 
someone who is never disturbed. Similarly they say that someone is 
said to be 'free of sadness' if he is not a prey to sadness and doesn't 
suffer from this vice frequently or to excess; for it is a denial of human 
nature that someone's mind be immune to sadness; the wise person is not 
overwhelmed by grief but is touched by it. They also add other points of 
this sort, in accordance with their own school. 

4. With these points they do not eliminate the passions but moderate 
them. But how little we grant to the wise person if he is stronger than 
the very weak, is more happy than the very sad, is more temperate than 
those who are totally uncontrolled and rises above the most lowly. What 
if Ladas were to admire his own swiftness by comparing himself to those 
who are lame and weak? 

She might zoom over the tips of the leaves of a grainfield without touching them 
And would not harm the tender ears in running, 

LETTER 85 41 

Or she might journey across the sea hovering above the swelling waves, 
And never taint her swift feet with wetness. 1 

This is an example of swiftness measured in its own right, rather than 
swiftness praised by comparison with those who are very slow. What if 
you were to call someone with a mild fever 'healthy'? Moderate sickness 
is not good health. 

5. The objection is, 'the wise person is said to be undisturbed in the 
same way that some pomegranates are said to be seedless — not if its seeds 
are not hard at all, but if they are less hard.' But that is false. For my 
meaning is not that a good man has a reduction in bad qualities but an 
absence of them. There ought to be none, not small ones. For if there are 
any at all, they will grow and at some time get in his way. Just as a large 
and complete cataract blinds the eyes, so a limited one impairs them. 

6. If you allow some passions to the wise person, his reason will be 
no match for them and will be swept away as though by a kind of 
torrent — especially since you are giving him not just one passion to 
struggle against, but all of them. A group of passions, no matter how 
modest in power, has more impact than the violence of one big one. 

7. He has a desire for money, but limited desire. He has ambition, 
but not agitated ambition. He is irascible, but can be pacified; he is not 
steadfast, but is not too unstable and fickle. He suffers from lust, but not 
insane lust. The situation is better for the person who has one vice in its 
entirety than it is for the person who has them all, though they are less 

8. Next, it makes no difference how big the passion is; no matter what 
its size, it doesn't know how to obey and cannot take advice. Just as no 
animal obeys reason, neither the wild beast nor the domesticated and tame 
animal (for their nature is deaf to its persuasion), so too the passions do 
not obey and do not listen, no matter how small they are. Tigers and lions 
never cast off their ferocity, though sometimes they moderate it, and when 
you are least expecting it their tempered savagery flares up. One can never 
be confident that vices have been gentled. 

9. Next, if reason is effective then the passions don't even get started; if 
the passions get going despite reason then they will persist despite it. For 
it is easier to check their beginnings than to control their attack. Therefore 
that so-called 'moderation' is bogus and useless, and should be treated in 
the same way as if someone said that one must be moderately insane or 
moderately sick. 

1 Yergil, Aeneid 7. 808-11. 


io. Only virtue possesses mental balance; bad characteristics don't 
admit of it, and you could eliminate them more easily than you could 
control them. Surely there can be no doubt that the long-standing 
and seasoned vices of human intelligence, the ones we call 'diseases', 
are uncontrolled — for example, greed, cruelty, fury. It follows that the 
passions too are uncontrolled, since one slides from the passions to the 

ii. Next, if you grant any authority to sadness, fear, desire, and the 
other wicked motions, then they will not be in our power. Why? Because 
the things which stimulate them are outside us; so they grow in accordance 
with the size of the causes which stimulate them. The fear will be greater 
if the object of our terror is greater or is seen from closer up; desire will be 
sharper to the extent that it is summoned up by a hope for greater gain. 

12. If it is not in our power whether or not we have passions, then 
certainly their magnitude isn't either. If you have let them get started, 
they grow along with their causes and their magnitude will be what it will 
be. Add to this the faet that these things, though they start out tiny, grow 
bigger. Destructive things do not observe a limit. No matter how minor 
the starting point for diseases, they sneak up on you and sometimes a very 
small increase overwhelms ailing bodies. 

13. How crazy it is to believe that things whose starting points are 
beyond our authority can have end points that are within our authority! 
How can I be strong enough to put an end to something which I wasn't 
strong enough to prevent from starting, considering that it is easier to bar 
them than it is to repress them once they have gained entry? 

14. Certain people have made a distinction which leads them to say, 
'The temperate and prudent person is tranquil with regard to the state and 
condition of his intellect, but not with regard to what actually happens. 
For as far as the condition of his intellect is concerned he is not disturbed 
nor is he saddened or afraid, but many external causes impinge from the 
outside which inflict disturbance on him.' 

15. What they want to say adds up to this: he is not irascible but 
nevertheless he gets angry sometimes; and he is not fearful, but gets afraid 
sometimes, i.e., he is free of the vice of fear but is not free of the passion. 
But if it is allowed in, fear will by frequent occurrence turn into the vice 
and anger, once admitted into the mind, will undermine that disposition 
of a mind which is free of anger. 

16. Moreover, if he does not hold in contempt the causes which come 
from the outside and if he fears something, when he has to go bravely 
against weapons and fire on behalf of his fatherland, the laws, and freedom, 

LETTER 85 43 

then he will go forth hesitantly and with a sinking spirit. But this mental 
deviation does not afflict the wise person. 

17. Moreover, I think that one ought to watch out that we not confuse 
two things which ought to be proven separately. For there are independent 
lines of inference which show (a) that the only good is what is honourable 
and (b) that virtue is sufficient for a happy life. If the only good is what 
is honourable, everyone grants that virtue suffices for living happily. But 
the converse is not conceded, that if only virtue makes one happy then the 
only good is what is honourable. 

18. Xenocrates and Speusippus think that one can be happy even if 
all one has is virtue, but not that the only good is what is honourable. 
Epicurus also holds that when one has virtue one is happy, but that virtue 
itself is not sufficient for a happy life, because it is the pleasure produced 
by virtue that makes one happy and not the virtue itself. This is a clumsy 
distinction. For Epicurus also says that one never has virtue without 
pleasure. So, if it is always conjoined with it and is inseparable, it is also 
sufficient on its own. For it brings along with itself pleasure, and it is 
never without pleasure even when it is on its own. 

19. But the further point they make, that one will be happy even if all 
one has is virtue, but that one will not be perfectly happy, is ridiculous. I 
cannot figure out how this could be the case. For the happy life has within 
itself a good which is perfect and unsurpassable. And if this is the case, 
then the life is perfectly happy. If the life of the gods has nothing greater 
or better, and the happy life is divine, then there is no higher state to 
which it could be raised. 

20. Moreover, if the happy life is in need of nothing, then every happy 
life is perfect and the same life is both happy and most happy. Surely 
you do not doubt that the happy life is the highest good. Therefore, if 
a life has the highest good it is supremely happy. Just as the highest 
good does not admit of an addition (for what is above the highest?) 
then neither does the happy life, which cannot exist without the highest 
good. But if you introduce someone who is 'more' happy, then you can 
also introduce someone who is 'much more' happy. You will generate 
countless distinctions within the highest good, when on my understanding 
the highest good is that which has no level above it. 

21. If one person is less happy than another, it follows that he will 
have a stronger desire for the life of the other person than for his own; 
but a happy person prefers nothing to his own life. Either of these two 
propositions is unbelievable: (a) that there is something left for the happy 
person to prefer to be the case than is already the case; or (b) that he 


does not want what is better than he is. For certainly the more prudent a 
person is the more he will strive towards what is best and desire to achieve 
it in any way possible. But how can someone be happy if he can — indeed, 
should — desire something even now? 

22. I will tell you the source of this error. They do not know that there 
is only one happy life. It is its quality not its magnitude that puts it in the 
position of being best. And so it is in the same state whether it is long 
or short, expansive or constrained, spread through many locations and 
parts or confined to one. He who assesses the happy life with respect to 
its number, measurement, or parts strips it of its excellence. But what is 
it that is outstanding in a happy life? The faet that it is full. 

23. In my opinion, the goal of eating and of drinking is satiety. One 
person eats more, another less. What difference does it make? Both are 
now sated. One person drinks more, another less. What difference does 
it make? Both are not thirsty. One person lives for many years, another 
for fewer. It makes no difference if the many years have made the former 
person as happy as the few have made the latter. The man whom you call 
'less happy' is not happy. This predicate cannot be reduced. 

24. He who is brave is without fear. He who is without fear is 
without sadness. He who is without sadness is happy. This is our [i.e., 
Stoic] argument. Against it, they try this response: we are claiming that 
something false and controversial is generally agreed on, that he who is 
brave is without fear. 'What then?' is the reply, 'will a brave person not 
be afraid if bad things threaten? That is the mark of a crazy lunatic, not of 
a brave person. Rather,' they say, 'he will fear very moderately; but he is 
not completely free of fear.' 

25. Those who argue thus fall back into the same problem all over 
again: for them, smaller vices count as virtues. For the person who fears, 
but rarely and less severely, does not lack the vice but is bothered by a 
less serious vice. 'But I think that someone who does not fear when bad 
things threaten is a madman.' What you say is true — if they really are bad 
things. But if he knows that they are not bad and takes the view that only 
baseness is bad, then he ought to gaze upon dangers with calmness and 
to despise things which are fearsome to others. Or, if it is the mark of a 
fool and madman not to fear bad things, then the more prudent one is the 
more one will fear. 

26. The reply is, 'On your view the brave person will expose himself to 
dangers.' Not at all. He will not fear them but he will avoid them. Caution 
suits him but fear does not. 'What, then?' is the reply, 'will he not fear 
death, chains, fire, and the other weapons of fortune?' No. For he knows 

LETTER 85 45 

that they are not bad but only seem so; he considers all those things mere 
bugbears of human life. 

27. Present him with imprisonment, beatings, chains, starvation, and 
bodily torture by means of sickness or injury or whatever else you can 
inflict on him. He will regard them as delusional fears. They are objects of 
fear only for the fearful. Or do you think something which we sometimes 
embrace of our own free will is bad? 

28. You ask what is bad? Yielding to the things which are called bad and 
surrendering to them one's freedom — for the sake of which all of those 
afflictions should be borne. Freedom dies unless we despise the things 
which place the yoke on our necks. They would not have doubts about 
the behaviour which befits a brave man if they knew what bravery is. It is 
not unthinking rashness nor a love of danger nor a pursuit of frightening 
things. It is the knowledge of how to distinguish between what is bad 
and what is not. Bravery is very careful about protecting itself and at the 
same time is strong in its endurance of those things which give a false 
impression of badness. 

29. 'What then? If a sword is held to the neck of a brave man, if his 
body is pierced again and again in one part after another, if he sees his 
bowels lying on his own lap, if he is attacked again and again after a rest, so 
that he might feel the torment more vividly, and if wounds newly scabbed 
over are made to bleed afresh, is he not afraid? Will you say that he is not 
feeling pain?' Yes, he feels pain (for no virtue strips a human being of his 
ability to feel), but he does not fear; he gazes upon his own pains from on 
high, unbeaten. You ask what kind of mind he has? Like the mind of those 
who comfort an ailing friend. 

30. 'What is bad does harm. What does harm makes one worse. Pain 
and poverty do not make one worse. Therefore they are not bad things.' 

The reply is, 'Your claim is false. For it is not the case that if something 
does harm it makes one worse. A storm or a squall do harm to the 
ship-captain, but do not for all that make him worse.' 

31. Certain Stoics reply to this as follows: a storm or a squall do make 
the ship-captain worse because he cannot carry out what he intended to 
do and hold his course. They make him worse in his work but not in his 
art. To them the Peripatetic replies, 'Therefore poverty will also make the 
wise person worse, as will pain and other things of the sort. For they do 
not take away his virtue, but they do hinder his work.' 

32. This would be well said, if not for the faet that the situation of a 
ship-captain and that of a wise person are different. The purpose of the 
latter in living his life is not to carry out what he undertakes no matter 


what, but to do everything properly. The purpose of the ship-captain is 
to bring his ship to port no matter what. The arts serve us and ought to 
carry through on their promises; wisdom is a sovereign director; the arts 
help with life, wisdom gives the orders. 

33. 1 think that one should reply differently to the objection. The art of 
the ship-captain is not made worse by any storm nor is the performance 
of the art. The ship-captain did not promise you success, but a useful bit 
of work and knowledge of how to steer a ship. And this becomes more 
apparent as some violent chance event gets in his way. The person who 
can say, 'Neptune, you will never [sink] this ship except when it is well 
sailed' is doing all his art demands. The storm does not impede the work 
of the ship-captain but his success. 

34. 'What then?' is the reply, 'does the situation which prevents the 
ship-captain from reaching port, which makes his efforts vain, which either 
carries him back out to sea or detains him and unmasts his ship — does this 
not harm him?' Not qua ship-captain, but it does harm him qua person 
sailing. Otherwise <he isn't a ship-captain at all>. So far from impeding 
the art of the ship-captain, it actually demonstrates it. As the saying goes, 
anyone can be a ship-captain when the sea is calm. Those things impede 
the ship, not its steersman qua steersman. 

35. The ship-captain has two roles, the one shared with all those who 
boarded the same ship. He too is a passenger. The other role is unique to 
him. He is a ship-captain. The storm harms him qua passenger not qua 

36. Next: the art of a ship-captain is someone else's good. It relates to 
those whom he conveys, just as the good of a doctor relates to those whom 
he treats. The good <of the wise person> is shared. It both <belongs> 
to those with whom he lives and is proper to himself. And so perhaps 
there is harm done to the ship-captain, whose service pledged to others is 
hindered by the storm. 

37. But the wise person is not harmed by poverty, not harmed by 
pain, not harmed by the other storms of life. For not all of his works are 
hindered but only those which relate to others. He is himself always in 
action and he has the greatest impact when fortune is ranged against him. 
For he is then doing the work of wisdom itself which we said is both his 
own good and that of others. 

38. Moreover, he is not hindered from benefitting others when certain 
inevitabilities oppress him. He is hindered from teaching how the state 
should be managed because of his poverty, but he does teach how poverty 
should be managed. His work extends throughout his entire life. And so 

LETTER 85 47 

no fortune and no circumstance bar the wise person from acting. For the 
obstacle by which he is hindered from doing other things is something 
which he is actively engaged with. He is well suited for both kinds of 
situation. He manages good situations and vanquishes bad ones. 

39. He has trained himself, I claim, to display virtue just as much 
in favourable situations as in adverse ones and to consider not the raw 
material of virtue but virtue itself. And so poverty does not hinder him, 
nor does pain nor all the other things which deter the inexperienced and 
drive them headlong. 

40. Do you think that he is oppressed by bad circumstances? He makes 
use of them. Phidias didn't just know how to make statues out of ivory; he 
also made them from bronze. If you had offered him marble, if you had 
offered him some material still cheaper than that, he would have made 
the best statue that could have been made from it. It is thus that the wise 
person will, if he has the chance, display his virtue in his wealth; but if he 
does not have the chance he will display it in poverty. If he can he will 
display it in his homeland; if not, in exile. If he can he will display it as 
commander of the army; if not as a foot-soldier. If he can he will display 
it while sound of body; if not while crippled. Whatever lot he receives he 
will make something of it worth remembering. 

41. Wild beast tamers can be counted on; they train the fiercest animals, 
the ones whose attack is fearful, to obey people. They are not content with 
conquering their ferocity; they tame them so thoroughly that they can live 
with us. The trainer puts his hånd into the lion's mouth, the tiger's keeper 
gives him kisses, the tiny Ethiopian orders his elephant to kneel and to 
walk a tight-rope. In this way the wise person is a craftsman at mastering 
misfortune: pain, hunger, humiliation, prison, and exile are everywhere 
regarded with dread, but when they come up against him they are gentled. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1. 1 suffered shipwreck even before I got on board. I won't add how this 
happened for fear that you might think that this too should be counted 
among the 'Stoic paradoxes'. When you want I will prove that none 
of these 'paradoxes' is false or so amazing as it seems at first sight to 
be — actually, I will do so even if you don't want me to. Meanwhile, this 
journey has taught me how many superfluous possessions we have and 
how easily we could choose to put aside those things whose loss we do not 
feel if necessity at some point takes them from us. 

2. My dear friend Maximus and I are now passing an extremely happy 
couple of days with a very few servants — no more than would fit in a 
single carriage — and with no possessions except what we could carry on 
our persons. The mattress lies upon the ground and I upon the mattress. 
I have two cloaks, one used as a spread, the other as a cover. 

3. The lunch was minimal. It had been prepared in under an hour. I 
go nowhere without dried figs (and am never without writing tablets). If 
I have bread, the figs serve as a relish; if I don't have bread, they serve 
as bread. They make every day a New Year's Day for me, which I make 
blessed and fortunate with good thoughts and greatness of mind — and 
the mind is never greater than when it puts aside what is foreign to it 
and makes itself calm by fearing nothing and makes itself rich by desiring 

4. The carriage I travel in is rustic. The only evidence that the mules are 
even alive is that they are walking, and the mule driver is shoeless — but 
not because of the summer heat. I can scarcely bring myself to want that 
the carriage seem to be mine — my twisted sense of modesty about what 
is right is still hanging on, and whenever we meet some more fashionable 
party I blush unwillingly. This is an indication that the views which I prove 
and approve of do not yet have a stable and unmovable home. Someone 
who blushes at his lowly carriage will take false pride in a costly one. 

5. I have made insufficient progress so far. I do not yet dåre to go 
public with my frugality. I am still concerned about the views of other 

LETTER 87 49 

I should have cried out against the views of the entire human race, 
'You are mad, you are wrong, you are gawking at superfluous things, you 
don't value anyone at his true worth. When it comes to personal wealth, 
the most careful accountants set the credit of individuals to whom one 
might extend a loan or a favour (for favours too are carried on the books 
as expenditures) as follows: he has big estates, but owes a lot; 

6. he has a beautiful house, but it is heavily mortgaged. No one can 
quickly put up for sale a more attractive set of house-slaves, but he cannot 
meet his debts. If he pays off his creditors, he will have nothing left. 
In other matters too you will have to do the same thing and to examine 
critically how much of his own each person really has.' 

7. You think he is rich because he even brings gilded furniture with 
him when he travels, because he has estates in every province, because he 
reads from a fat account book, because his suburban estate is so big that 
it would provoke resentment even if it were located in the wastelands of 
Apulia. When you have said all of that, he is still poor. Why? Because he 
is in debt. How much does he owe? Everything — unless you happen to 
suppose that it makes some difference whether he has borrowed from a 
person or from fortune. 

8. How is it relevant that one's well-fed mules are all of a uniform 
colour? How are those carriages with embossed ornament relevant? 

And those fast steeds covered with purpie and embroidered cloths: 

Golden collars hang down on their chests, 

And covered in gold they hold golden bits in their teeth. 1 

These things improve neither the master nor the mule. 

9. Cato the Censor, whose existence was as beneficial to the state as 
Scipio's was (for the one waged war on our enemies, the other on our 
characters), rode an old nag equipped with saddlebags so he could bring 
along what he needed. How I would love him to meet up with one of 
these young dandies who travel like rich men, herding his runners, his 
Numidian slaves and a cloud of dust before him! No doubt he would seem 
to have a better outfit and a better retinue than Marcus Cato had — this 
man who amidst all that fancy gear hesitated whether he should take a 
position as a gladiator or as a beast-fighter. 

10. What a credit to his time, that a commander, winner of a triumph, 
a censor, and (what is greater than all of this) a Cato should be satisfied 
with one old horse, and not even all of that, since part of the horse was 
taken up with his saddlebags hanging down on either side. So, wouldn't 

1 Vergil, Aeneid 7.277—279. 


you rank that one lonely horse, rubbed down by Cato himself, ahead of all 
those plump ponies, Asturian horses, and high-stepping trotters? 

ii. I can see that there won't be any end of this subject unless I put an 
end to it myself. So here I will be silent with respect to those things which 
are called 'impedimenta' — no doubt the term was coined by someone who 
foresaw that they would turn out as they have in faet turned out. Now I 
want to set out for you the arguments, still just a very few, dealing with 
virtue — which we maintain is sufficient for the happy life. 

12. 'What is good makes people good (for in music too what is good 
makes a person musical); chance things do not make a person good; 
therefore they are not good.' 

The Peripatetics respond to this by claiming that our first premiss is 
false. They say, 'people do not always become good because of what is 
good. In music there are goods (for example a reed-pipe or string or an 
organ used to accompany singing); and yet none of these makes a person 

13. Our reply to them will be, 'You don't understand how we meant 
"what is good in music". For we are not referring to what equips the 
musical person but to what makes him musical. You are turning to the 
equipment used by the art, not to the art. However, if there is something 
good in the musical art itself, that will certainly make him musical.' 

14. 1 want to make that point even clearer. 'Good in the art of music' is 
used in two senses, one according to which the musician's performance is 
assisted, the other according to which the art is assisted; the instruments 
(pipes, organs, strings) bear on the performance but not on the art itself. 
For he is an artist even without them, though perhaps he cannot practice 
his art. But this dual meaning does not apply to the case of a human being. 
For the good of a person and of a life are the same. 

15. 'Something which the basest and most despicable person can have 
is not good; but pimps and gladiators can have riches; therefore riches are 
not good.' 

They reply, 'Your premiss is false. For both in grammar and in medicine 
or navigation we see that the lowliest people can have good things.' 

16. But those arts never promised greatness of mind, they do not rise 
to great heights nor do they turn up their noses at the works of chance. 
Virtue elevates a human being and piaces him above the things which 
are dear to mortals. It neither desires nor fears excessively those things 
which are called good and those things which are called bad. 'Swallow', 
one of Cleopatra's degenerates, had a huge estate. Recently Natalis, whose 
tongue was as wicked as it was unclean and whose mouth was used for 

LETTER 87 51 

feminine hygiene, was the heir to lots of people and had lots of heirs 
himself. So what? Did the money make him unclean, or did he sully the 
money? Money falls to some people the way a penny falls into the sewer. 

17. Virtue takes its stand above all such things. It is assessed at 
its own value and judges to be good none of those things which can 
turn up just anywhere. Medicine and navigation do not bar them- 
selves and their practitioners from admiring such things; someone 
who is not a good man can nevertheless be a doctor, can be a nav- 
igatør, can just as well be a grammarian, by God, as he can be a 
cook. Someone who cannot have just anything is not just any sort of 
person — the kind of things a person can possess show the kind of 
person he is. 

18. A money bag is worth as much as it contains; rather, it counts as an 
adjunct to what it contains. Who puts any value on a full purse except the 
value of the amount of money it contains? The same thing applies to those 
who command great personal fortunes; they are adjuncts and appendages 
of their fortunes. So why is a wise person great? Because he has a great 
mind. Therefore it is true that what even the most despicable person can 
have is not good. 

19. So I will never say that freedom from pain is a good — a grasshopper 
and a flea have that. I wouldn't even say that calmness and the absence of 
trouble are a good — what is more at leisure than a worm? You ask what it 
is that makes someone wise? The same thing that makes him a god. You 
have to give him something divine, heavenly, and splendid. Good does 
not come to everyone nor does it allow just anyone to possess it. 

20. Consider 

both what each region produces and what each declines to produce. 

In one region there are grain crops, in another the grape harvest is richer; 

In some place else fruit trees grow and grasses thrive 

Without cultivation. Don't you see how the Tmolus produces fragrant saffron, 

India produces ivory, the gentle Sabaeans produce their frankincense, 

And the unclad Chalybes produce iron? 2 

21. Those products are allocated by region, so there is reciprocal tråde 
in the products people need if each group takes its turn in importing 
something from the others. But the highest good we are talking about also 
has its very own region — it is not produced where ivory or iron come 
from. You ask, what is the region of the highest good? The mind. Unless 
it is pure and sacred, it cannot receive god. 

2 Vergil, Georgia 1.53-8. 


22. 'Good does not come from bad; but riches come from greed; 
therefore riches are not good.' 

The reply is, 'It is not true that good is not produced from bad; for 
money is produced as a result of temple robbery and theft. And so temple 
robbery and theft are certainly bad, but precisely because they produce 
more bad things than good. For they produce gain, but along with fear, 
worry, and anguish both mental and physical.' 

23. Whoever says this must accept the proposition that temple robbery 
is partly good, since it produces some good, just as it is bad because it 
produces many bad outcomes. But what could be more monstrous than 
this? And yet we have in faet completely persuaded people that temple 
robbery, theft, and adultery should be counted as goods. Think of all 
the people who do not blush at theft, who boast of adultery! After all, 
small-scale temple robbery is punished, but large-scale temple robbery is 
celebrated with a triumphal parade. 

24. Add to this the faet that an aet of temple robbery, if it is in any 
degree good, will also be honourable and will be called a 'straight' deed (for 
it is an action of our own). But no human being's thought can accept that 
proposition. Therefore good things cannot be produced from something 
bad. For if, as you say, temple robbery is only bad because it causes a great 
deal of bad, then if you eliminate the punishment for it and guarantee its 
safety, then it will be completely good. And yet the greatest punishment 
for crimes is in the crimes themselves. 

25. You are wrong, I say, if you postpone punishments until execution 
or imprisonment. The deeds are punished as soon as they have been done, 
in faet, while they are being done. Therefore good is not produced out 
of bad any more than a fig is produced from an olive tree: the seedlings 
correspond to the seed and good things cannot betray their lineage. Just 
as the honourable cannot be produced out of the shameful, so too good 
cannot be produced from what is bad; for the good and the honourable 
are the same. 

26. Certain Stoics reply to this as follows: 'Let us suppose that money 
is a good no matter what its source; still, it does not follow that the money 
comesfrom temple robbery even if its source is temple robbery. Think of it 
like this. There is some gold and a viper in the same jar. If you take gold 
from the jar, you do not take the gold because there is a snake in there too. 
It is not, I say, because it contains a snake that the jar yields me gold, but 
it yields gold even though it also contains a snake. In the same way gain 
comes from temple robbery not because temple robbery is shameful and 
criminal but because it also contains gain. Just as the snake in that jar is 

LETTER 87 53 

something bad, while the gold which lies alongside the snake is not, so too 
in the case of temple robbery it is the crime which is bad, not the gain.' 

27. 1 <disagree> with these Stoics. For the two cases are very different. 
In the one case I can remove the gold without the snake, but in the other I 
cannot get the gain without the aet of temple robbery; the gain in question 
is not lying alongside the crime, but is in faet mixed in with it. 

28. 'Something which, when we desire to get it, leads us to many bad 
outcomes is not a good. But when we desire to get riches we are led to 
many bad outcomes. Therefore riches are not good.' 

The reply is, ' Your proposition has two meanings. One: when we desire 
to get riches we are led to many bad outcomes. But we are also led to many 
bad outcomes when we desire to get virtue. One man is shipwrecked while 
travelling for the purpose of study, and someone else might be kidnapped. 

29. 'The other meaning is like this: that through which we are led to 
bad outcomes is not good. It will not follow from this proposition that we 
are led to bad outcomes through riches or pleasures; or if we are led to 
many bad outcomes through riches, then not only are riches not good, but 
they are bad. But you say only that they are not good. Moreover,' goes 
the reply, 'you concede that there is some use in having riches: you count 
them among the advantages. But by the same argument they will <not> 
even be advantageous, since through them many disadvantageous things 
happen to us.' 

30. Certain people reply to them as follows: 'You are wrong to blame the 
disadvantageous outcomes on the riches. The riches don't hurt anyone. 
The harm is done either by each person's own stupidity or by someone 
else's wickedness, just as no one is killed by a sword — the sword is merely 
the weapon of the kiiler. Therefore the riches do not harm you just because 
harm is done to you on account of the riches.' 

31. In my view Posidonius has a better reply. He says that riches are 
the cause of the bad outcomes, not because riches themselves do anything 
but because they instigate people to action. For there is a difference 
between the efficient cause (which must do harm immediately) and the 
antecedent cause. Riches have this antecedent causality; they inflame our 
minds, they breed pride, they attrået envy, and they so disturb the intellect 
that a reputation for wealth gives us pleasure, even when it is bound to 
harm us. 

32. But it is appropriate that all good things should be free of blame; they 
are pure, they do not corrupt our minds, they do not tempt us. To be sure, 
they uplift us and expand us, but without making us self-important. Things 
which are good produce confidence; riches produce boldness; things which 


are good give us greatness of mind; riches produce arrogance. However, 
arrogance is nothing but a false semblance of greatness. 

33. The reply is, 'Looked at that way, riches are also bad, not just not 
good.' They would be bad if they could themselves do harm, if, as I said, 
they had efficient causality. But as it is they have antecedent causality, 
which not only stimulates the mind but even attracts it. For riches produce 
a plausible appearance of goodness which is credible to the many. 

34. Virtue too has antecedent causality with regard to envy; for many 
people are envied because of their wisdom and many because of their 
justice. But it does not have this causality from within itself nor is it a 
plausible cause. In faet, the more plausible appearance is presented to 
human minds by virtue, which summons them to love and awe. 

35. Posidonius thinks one should make the following argument: 'those 
things which do not produce greatness or confidence or calmness in 
the soul are not good; but riches and good health and things like them 
produce none of those results; therefore they are not good.' He further 
intensifies this argument in the following manner: 'those things which do 
not produce greatness or confidence or calmness in the soul, but rather 
arrogance, self-importance, and presumption, are bad. But we are driven 
to these states by chance things. Therefore they are not good.' 

36. The reply is, 'By this argument, those things are not even advan- 
tageous.' Advantageous things are of one kind, goods of another. The 
advantageous is that which has more usefulness than inconvenience. Good 
must be unalloyed and completely free of harm. The good is not what 
yields more benefit, but rather that which produces nothing but benefit. 

37. Furthermore, advantage applies to animals, to imperfect humans, 
and to fools. And so what is disadvantageous can be mixed in with it, but 
it is labelled 'advantageous' because of its greater part. Good only applies 
to the wise person and it must be unsullied. 

38. Cheer up. Only one knot remains, though it is Herculean. 'The 
good is not made up of what is bad. But riches are made up of many 
instances of poverty. Therefore riches are not good.' Our school does not 
accept this argument, but the Peripatetics both pose the argument and 
solve it. However, Posidonius says that this sophism, which circulates in 
all the schools of dialectic, is refuted as follows by Antipater. 

39. 'Poverty is said not with regard to possession but with regard to 
removal' (or, as the ancients said, 'privation'; the Greeks say kata steresin); 
it states not what it has but what it does not have. And so nothing can 
be filled up by many instances of emptiness; many things create riches, 
not many instances of want. 'Your understanding of poverty,' he says, 

LETTER 87 55 

'is inappropriate. For poverty is not the state which possesses just a few 
things, but the state which does not possess many things. So it is not cailed 
poverty because of what it has but because of what it lacks.' 

40. 1 could express my meaning more easily if there were a Latin word by 
which one could express anhuparxia. This is the word Antipater reserves 
for poverty. I do not see what poverty could be except the possession 
of just a little. When we have lots of free time we will consider what 
is the essence of riches and of poverty. But then we will also reflect on 
whether it might not be better to assuage poverty and to strip wealth of its 
haughtiness than to go to court over the words — as though a judgement 
had already been reached about the things. 

41. Let us suppose that we have been summoned to an assembly. A law 
is proposed to abolish riches. Will we convince people for or against by 
using these arguments? Will we, by using these arguments, bring it about 
that the Roman people should seek out and praise poverty, the foundation 
and basis of its empire, but stand in fear of its own wealth; that it should 
reflect that it has discovered riches among the vanquished, that riches are 
the source of the bribery, corruption, and civil strife which have invaded a 
city of surpassing piety and self-control, that the spoils of foreign peoples 
are displayed with excessive luxury, and that what one people has taken 
from everyone else can even more easily be taken away by everyone from 
that one? It is better to argue in favour of this law, and to conquer the 
passions rather than to limit them. If we can, let us speak more bravely; if 
we cannot, let us at least speak more plainly. 


LETTER 1 06 

Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1. I am rather slow in replying to your letter, not because I am 
bogged down with business. Don't listen to that excuse — I am at leisure, 
and so is everyone who wants to be. Activities do not pursue people, 
people embrace activities and suppose that being busy is a proof that 
one is happy. So why is it, then, that I did not write back right away? 
Your query fit right into the framework of the project on which I am 

2. For you know that I am eager to write a comprehensive work on 
ethics and to articulate all the questions which pertain to it. And so I 
hesitated about whether I should put you off until the appropriate time 
came along for your topic or whether I should give you my judgement out 
of sequence. It seemed more civilized not to keep waiting someone who 
has come so far. 

3. And so I shall pluck this too out of the established sequence of 
connected issues and if there are any others of the same sort I shall send 
them along to you on my own, even if you don't ask. What are these issues, 
you ask? Things which it is more pleasant than beneficial to know, like the 
one you are asking about: is the good a body? 

4. The good does something, since it provides benefit. What does 
something is a body. The good stimulates the mind and, in a way, gives 
it shape and cohesion; and these are characteristics of body. The goods 
of the body are bodies, and so, therefore, are those of the mind. For the 
mind too is a body. 

5. The good of a human being must be a body, since he is himself 
bodily. And I miss my mark if the things which nourish him and either 
preserve or restore his health are not also bodies. Therefore his good is 
also a body. 

I don't suppose that you will doubt that the emotions are bodies (to 
stick in a new point which you aren't asking about) — for example anger, 
love, sadness — unless you doubt that they change our expression, furrow 
our brow, relax our face, summon a blush, or induce pallor. Well, then? 

LETTER 1 06 57 

Do you think that such obvious marks on the body can be inflicted by 
anything other than a body? 

6. If the emotions are bodies, so too are the ailments of our souls, such 
as greed and cruelty, defects which have hardened and reached the state 
of incorrigibility. So too, then, are vice and all its species, malice, envy, 
and pride. 

7. So too, then, are the good traits — first because they are their 
contraries, and second because they will produce in you the same signs. 
Or do you not see how much energy is given to the eyes by courage? 
How steady a gaze is given by practical wisdom? How much mildness and 
calmness is given by reverence? How tranquil a demeanour is given by joy? 
How much firmness is given by strict self-discipline? How much relaxation 
by gentleness? So, the things which alter the colour and disposition of 
bodies and exercise their dominion in bodies are themselves bodies. But 
all the virtues which I have mentioned are goods, and so is whatever comes 
from them. 

8. Surely it is not in doubt that that by which something can be 
touched is a body? 'For no thing can touch or be touched except a 
body', as Lucretius says. 1 But all those things which I have mentioned 
would not alter the body unless they touched it. Therefore they are 

9. Moreover, whatever has enough power to set something in motion 
and drive it, or to hold it back and restrain it, is a body. Well, then? Does 
fear not hold us back? Does boldness not set us in motion? Does courage 
not send us forward and give us drive? Does temperance not restrain us 
and call us back? Does joy not lift us up and does sadness not depress 

10. Finally, whatever we do we carry out at the command either of vice 
or of virtue. What commands the body is a body, what brings force to 
bear on a body is a body. The good of the body is bodily and the good of a 
human being is the good of a body. And so it is bodily. 

11. Since I have indulged you as you wished me to, I shall now 
say to myself what I can see you are going to say to me: we're play- 
ing checkers here. Technical precision is being worn away in pointless 
superfluities. These things do not produce good people, merely learned 

1 2. Being wise is a more accessible matter, rather, a more straightforward 
matter. To produce a good mind it <suffices> to use just a bit of 

1 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 1.304. 


scholarship, but we squander philosophy itself on superfluities, as we 
do everything else. We suffer from a lack of self-control when it comes 
to scholarship, just as we do in everything. We are learning for the 
schoolroom, but not for real life. 

LETTER ii 3 

Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. You want me to write and tell you what I think about this question 
which is bandied about within our school, whether justice, courage, 
practical wisdom, and the rest of the virtues are animals. My dear 
Lucilius, it is this technicality which has made us seem to be giving our 
wits a workout on pointless topics and frittering away our leisure on 
debates which will do no one any good. I will do as you wish and explicate 
the views of our school; but I confess that I am myself of another opinion. 
I think that there are some topics which are appropriate to those who wear 
Greek-style shoes and cloaks. So anyway, I will tell you what the topics 
were which stirred up the ancients — or rather what topics the ancients 
stirred up. 

2. It is agreed that the mind is an animal, since the mind itself makes 
us animals, and since they have derived the term 'animal' from it; virtue, 
however, is nothing but the mind in a certain disposition; therefore it is 
an animal. Next, virtue does something; but nothing can be done without 
an impulse; and only animals have impulse, so if it has an impulse it is an 

3. He objects, 'If virtue is an animal, then virtue itself has virtue.' Why 
shouldn't it have itself? Just as the wise person does everything through 
his virtue, so virtue does everything through itself. 'So,' he says, 'all the 
skiils are animals too and all of our thoughts and mental conceptions. It 
follows that many thousands of animals dwell within this narrow breast 
and that each of us is or has many animals.' You ask what response can 
be given to this objection? Each and every one of those things will be an 
animal, but there will not be many animals. Why is that? I will tell you, if 
you give me your focussed attention. 

4. Individual animals should have individual substances; all of them 
have one mind; and so they can be individuals but they cannot be many 
individuals. I am both an animal and a man, but for all that you will not 
say that we are two. Why is that? Because we would have to be separated 
from each other. My claim is this: in order to be two, one thing must be 


distanced from the other. Whatever is multiple within a single object falls 
under one nature and so is one. 

5. My mind is an animal and so am I, but we are not two. Why? Because 
my mind is part of me. Something will be counted by itself only when it 
stands by itself. But when it is a component of something else, it cannot 
seem to be other than it. Why is that? I will tell you: because what is other 
ought to be distinctly its own, entire and complete within itself. 

6. 1 have declared that I hold a different view; for if this is accepted not 
only will the virtues be animals but the vices which are their opposites will 
be too and so will the passions, such as anger, fear, grief, and suspicion. 
The matter will keep on going: all opinions and all thoughts will be 
animals. And this can in no way be acceptable; for it is not the case that 
everything which comes from a person is a person. 

7. He asks, 'What is justice?' The mind in a certain disposition. 'And 
so if the mind is an animal, justice is too.' No, not at all. For justice is a 
disposition and a kind of property of the mind. The same mind takes on 
different configurations and it is not the case that it becomes a different 
animal every time it does something different, nor is what is done by the 
mind an animal either. 

8. <If> justice is an animal, <if> courage is, if the other virtues are 
animals, do they intermittently cease to be animals and then start up 
again, or are they always animals? Virtues cannot cease. Therefore many 
animals — innumerable animals, in faet — roam around in this mind. 

9. 'They are not many,' he says, 'because they are linked to one thing 
and they are parts and limbs of one thing.' So we are supposing that our 
mind has an appearance like that of the hydra, which has many heads, 
each one of which fights on its own and inflicts its own harm. But yet 
none of those heads is an animal, rather it is the head of an animal, 
while the hydra itself is one animal. No one has said that in a chimaera 
the lion or the dragon is an animal; they are its parts and parts are not 

10. How do you conclude that justice is an animal? He says, 'It does 
something and is beneficial; but what does something and is beneficial has 
an impulse, <and what has an impulse> is an animal.' This is true if it 
has its own impulse; <but it does not have its own impulse> but rather 
that of the mind. 

11. Until it dies, every animal is what it started out as. A human being 
is a human being until it dies, a horse is a horse, a dog is a dog; it cannot 
become something different. Justice, i.e., the mind in a certain disposition, 
is an animal. Let us believe that; then courage is an animal, i.e., the mind in 

LETTER 113 6l 

a certain disposition. Which mind? The one which was justice a moment 
ago? It is retained in the previous animal and it cannot become a different 
animal. It must remain in the animal in which it first began. 

12. Furthermore, there cannot be one mind for two animals, let alone for 
several. If justice, courage, self-control, and the other virtues are animals, 
how can they have one mind? They ought to have individual minds of 
their own or they won't be animals. 

13. There cannot be one body for several animals. Even they will admit 
that. What body belongs to justice? 'The mind.' Well, what body belongs 
to courage? 'The same mind.' But there cannot be one body for two 

14. 'But the same mind acquires the disposition of justice and that of 
courage and self-control.' This could happen if at the time when it was 
justice it was not courage, and at the time when it was courage it was 
not self-control. But now, all the virtues are together. So, how will the 
individual virtues be animals, when there is but one mind, which cannot 
produce more than one animal? 

15. Finally, no animal is a part of another animal; but justice is a part of 
a mind; therefore it is not an animal. 

But I think I am wasting my efforts on a pretty obvious point. The 
issue is a better subject for outrage than for debate. No animal is equal to 
another. Look at the bodies of every thing. Each has its very own colour 
and shape and size. 

16. This, I think, is yet another of the reasons for holding that the 
intellect of the divine craftsman is awesome: that it never repeats itself 
throughout the vast multitude of things that exist. Even things which look 
similar are, when you compare them, quite different. He has created so 
many kinds of leaves, each marked out with its own distinctive features; so 
many animals, each of a different size from the others — certainly there is 
some difference. He demanded of himself that things which were distinct 
must also be dissimilar and unequal. All the virtues, as you say, are equal. 
Therefore they are not animals. 

17. Every animal acts on its own; virtue, however, does nothing on 
its own, but in conjunction with a human being. All animals are either 
rational, like human beings and gods, <or non-rational, like beasts and 
cattle>; the virtues are certainly rational; but they are neither human nor 
gods; therefore they are not animals. 

18. No rational animal acts unless it is first stimulated by the appearance 
of something, then has an impulse, and then assent confirms this impulse. 
I will tell you what assent is. It is fitting that I walk; I do not walk until I 


have said this to myself and given my approval to this opinion. It is fitting 
that I sit; then alone do I sit. This assent does not occur in a virtue. 

19. Suppose that the virtue is practical wisdom. How can it assent that 
'it is appropriate for me to walk?' Nature does not allow this. For practical 
wisdom looks out for the person to whom it belongs, not for itself; for it 
can neither walk nor sit. Therefore it does not have assent, and what does 
not have assent is not a rational animal. And virtue, if it is an animal, is 
rational. But it is not rational, therefore it is not an animal. 

20. If virtue is an animal, and every good is virtue, then every good 
is an animal. Our school concedes this. Saving your father is a good and 
giving a wise opinion in the Senate is a good, and coming to a just verdict 
is a good. Therefore saving your father is an animal and giving a wise 
opinion in the Senate is an animal. They take the point so far that one can 
scarcely stop from laughing: being prudently silent is a good < . . . dining 
is a good>; so being silent and dining are animals. 

21. My Lord, I won't stop tickling and amusing myself with this techni- 
cal silliness. Justice and courage, if they are animals, are certainly terrestrial. 
Every terrestrial animal gets cold, hungry, and thirsty. Therefore justice 
gets cold, courage gets hungry, and clemency gets thirsty. 

22. More? Shouldn't I ask them what shape those animals have, that of 
a human or of a horse or a beast? If they give them a round shape like the 
one god has, I will ask whether greed and luxury and madness are just as 
round. For they too are animals. If they make them round too I will carry 
on and ask whether wise walking is an animal. They have to agree that it 
is and then to say that walking is an animal, and a round animal at that. 

23. You shouldn't think that <I> am the first of our school to speak 
independently of established doctrine and to form my own opinion; 
Cleanthes and his student Chrysippus did not agree on what walking 
is. Cleanthes says that it is the pneuma extended from the leading part 
of the soul all the way to the feet, while Chrysippus says that it is the 
leading part of the soul itself. So why shouldn't one follow the example of 
Chrysippus himself and speak for oneself, ridiculing the view that those 
goods are animals, and so many of them that the cosmos itself cannot 
contain them? 

24. He says, 'The virtues are not many animals, but for all that they are 
animals. For just as someone is both a poet and an orator and is for all 
that one person, so too those virtues are animals but they are not many 
animals. The mind and the mind which is just and wise and brave are the 
same thing, being in a certain disposition with respect to the individual 

LETTER 113 63 

25. That eliminates the <controversy> and we can agree. For I too 
concede for the time being that the mind is an animal; I can leave to a later 
time the question of what settled judgement I come to on that issue, but 
I deny that its actions are animals. Otherwise every word and every line 
of poetry will also be an animal. For if wise conversation is a good and 
every good is an animal, then < conversation > is an animal. A wise line 
of poetry is a good and every good is an animal; therefore a line of poetry 
is an animal. Thus 'I sing of arms and the man' is an animal — but they 
cannot get away with saying that it is round since it has six feet! 

26. You say, 'The whole business that is at issue right this minute is a 
tangled web.' I split my sides with laughter when I entertain the notion 
that a solecism, a barbarism, and a syllogism are animals, and I put suitable 
faces on them as a painter would. Is this what we debate with furrowed 
brows and creased foreheads? Here I cannot even use that quotation from 
Caelius, 'what solemn silliness!' The silliness is just ridiculous. 

So why don't we rather deal with something which is useful and 
productive for us and investigate how we can attain the virtues and what 
road will guide us to them? 

27. Teach me not whether courage is an animal, but that no animal 
is happy without courage, unless he has fortified himself against chance 
events and through mental training has mastered every accident before 
it hits him. What is courage? An unassailable fortification for human 
weakness which, when one surrounds oneself with it, enables a person to 
live safely in this life's siege. For he makes use of his own strength and his 
own weapons. 

28. At this point I want to cite for you the view of the Stoic Posidonius: 
'You can never think yourself safe with the weapons given to you by 
fortune; fight with your own. Fortune does not arm a man against herself; 
and so they stand in battle array against the enemy but are unarmed in the 
face of fortune.' 

29. Certainly Alexander laid waste to and routed the Persians, the 
Hyrcanians, the Indians and all the peoples between the rising sun and 
the shores of Ocean, but he himself lay in darkness because he killed one 
friend and lost another, lamenting in alternation his crime and his loss; 
the conqueror of so many kings and peoples caved in to anger and sorrow, 
since he brought it to pass that he could control everything but his own 

30. What massive error grips those men who want to project their 
right of conquest across the seas and judge themselves most happy if 
they control many provinces by military might and add new provinces to 


the old — unaware of that grand kingdom which is equal to the gods: the 
greatest empire is to command oneself. 

31. Let him teach me how sacred a thing justice is, justice which looks 
to the good of others and seeks nothing from itself but the use of itself. 
Let it have nothing to do with ambition and glory; let it be satisfied with 
itself. Let each person convince himself of this above all: 'I should be just 
without reward.' That's not enough. Let him also convince himself of this: 
'let me even enjoy spending freely on this most splendid virtue; let all my 
thoughts be as remote as possible from matters of personal convenience.' 
You shouldn't consider what the reward is for a just action; there is a 
greater reward in justice itself. 

32. Hold before your eyes what I was saying a short while back, that 
it makes no difference how many people are aware of your fairness. The 
person who wants to advertise his virtue is working for glory rather than 
virtue. Are you unwilling to be just without glory? My Lord! you will 
often have to be just even if it means suffering disgrace and then, if you 
are wise, you would derive satisfaction from that bad reputation as long as 
it has been honourably earned. 


LETTER ii 7 

Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. You're going to stir up a lot of trouble for me and, though you don't 
realize it, you'll get me into a huge and bothersome quarrel by posing for 
me the kind of minor questions on which I can neither disagree with my 
own school without jeopardizing my good relations nor agree with them 
in clear conscience. You ask whether it is true, as the Stoics hold, that 
wisdom is a good but that being wise is not a good. First I will set out the 
Stoic view; then I shall make bold to announce my judgement. 

2. My school holds that what is good is a body, since what is good does 
something and whatever does something is a body. What is good benefits; 
but something should do something in order to confer benefit; if it does 
something, it is a body. They say that wisdom is a good. It folio ws that it 
is necessary that they also say that wisdom is bodily. 

3. But they do not think that being wise is of the same kind. For it is 
incorporeal and an attribute of the other, i.e., wisdom. And so it neither 
does anything nor does it confer benefit. 'What, then?' he says, 'Do we not 
say it is good to be wise?' We do, but only by reference to that on which it 
depends, i.e., by reference to wisdom itself. 

4. Before I begin to withdraw from them and take up a distinct position, 
listen to the rejoinder delivered to them by others. They say, 'Looked at 
that way, it is not even good to live happily! Like it or not, they have to reply 
that the happy life is something good but that living happily is not good.' 

5. Furthermore, my school also faces this objection: 'you want to be 
wise; therefore being wise is something worth choosing; if it is a thing 
worth choosing, it is a good thing.' My school is forced to twist words 
and to insert an extra syllable into 'choose' which our language does 
not recognize. If you permit, I will add it. They say, 'what is good is 
worth choosing, and what we get when we have achieved the good is 
choiceworthy. It is not pursued as being good, but it is an adjunct of the 
good pursued.' 

6. I do not hold the same view and I think that our school resorts to 
this position because they are still impeded by their initial commitment 
and they are not permitted to change their formula. We are accustomed to 


give considerable weight to the preconception of all people and our view 
is that it is an argument that something is true if all people believe it; for 
example, we conclude that there are gods for this reason among others, 
that there is implanted in everyone an opinion about gods and there is no 
culture anywhere so far beyond laws and customs that it does not believe 
in some gods. When we debate the eternity of souls, it has considerable 
weight with us that there is a consensus among people who either fear 
the gods of the underworld or worship them. I use this public mode of 
persuasion: you won't find anyone who does not think that both wisdom 
and 'being wise' are good. 

7. I am not going to do what defeated [gladiators] do, appeal to the 
people. Let's start to fight with our own weapons. Is the attribute of 
something outside that of which it is the attribute or is it within that of 
which it is the attribute? If it is within that of which it is the attribute, 
then it is every bit as much a body as that of which it is the attribute. For 
nothing can be an attribute without touch, and what touches is a body. 
Nothing can be an attribute without an action, and what acts is a body. 
If it is outside, then its withdrawal comes after its arrival as an attribute. 
What withdraws has motion and what has motion is a body. 

8. You expect me to deny that a run is one thing and running something 
different, or that heat is one thing and being hot something different, or 
that light is one thing and being light is something different. I concede that 
they are different, but not that they are in different categories. If health is 
an indifferent, then being healthy is <also> an indifferent; if beauty is an 
indifferent, then being beautiful is also an indifferent. If justice is good, 
then so is being just; if disgrace is bad, then so is being in disgrace — just 
as much, in faet, as having a diseased eye is bad if eye disease is bad. To 
see this point, [reflect that] neither can exist without the other: he who is 
wise is a wise person; he who is a wise person is wise. It is beyond doubt 
that the quality of one correlates with the quality of the other, so much so 
that some people even think that the two are one and the same. 

9. But I would like to ask, since everything is either bad or good or 
indifferent, which group do you put 'being wise' in? They say that it is not 
good; it is certainly not bad; it follows that it is in-between. But we call 
'in-between' or 'indifferent' those things which can occur to a bad person 
just as well as to a good person, such as money, beauty, and high birth. 
But this 'being wise' cannot occur except to a good person; therefore it is 
not indifferent. And yet it is not bad, certainly, since it cannot occur to a 
bad person; therefore it is good. That which only a good person can have 
is good; only a good person can have 'being wise'; therefore it is good. 

LETTER 117 67 

10. He says, 'It is an attribute of wisdom.' So, this thing you call being 
wise, does it bring about wisdom or does it suffer wisdom? Whether it 
brings it about or suffers it, either way it is a body; for both what suffers 
and what acts are body. If it is a body it is good, since the only thing 
lacking, which prevented it from being good, was its incorporeality. 

11. The Peripatetics hold that there is no difference between wisdom 
and being wise, since in each of them the other is also present. For surely 
you don't think that anyone is wise except him who has wisdom and surely 
you don't think that anyone who is wise lacks wisdom. 

12. The early dialecticians distinguished these things, and the division 
was inherited from them by the Stoics. I will tell you what this division 
is. A field is one thing, and possessing a field is something different, isn't 
it? since possessing a field pertains to the person who possesses the field, 
not to the field itself. In this way wisdom is one thing and being wise is 
something different. You will, I think, concede that these are two distinct 
things, what is possessed and he who possesses it. Wisdom is possessed, 
and he who is wise possesses it. Wisdom is a mind made complete, that 
is, brought to its highest and best condition. For it is the art of life. What 
is being wise? I cannot say 'a mind made complete', but rather it is that 
which is a feature of someone who possesses a mind made complete; in 
this sense a good mind is one thing and it is something distinct to, as it 
were, possess a good mind. 

13. He says, 'There are bodily natures, such as this human being is and 
this horse is; they are then accompanied by motions of the mind which 
express the bodies. These motions have something about them which is 
distinctive and is abstracted from the bodies. For example, I see Cato 
walking; sense perception showed this and the mind believed it. What I 
see is a body and I directed my eyes and my mind to the body. Then I 
say: "Cato walks." ' He says, 'What I am now saying is not a body but 
something expressible about the body and some people call this an effatum, 
others call it an enuntiatum, still others call it a dictum. Thus when we 
say "wisdom" we understand something which is bodily; when we say 
"is wise" we are talking about a body. It makes an enormous difference 
whether you mention the person or talk about the person.' 

14. Let us suppose for the present that those are two distinct things (for 
I am not yet announcing my own opinion); what is to prevent there from 
being something which is distinct but nevertheless good? I was saying just 
a moment ago that a field is one thing and that it is something else to 
possess a field. Well, of course — for the possessor is of a different nature 
than the thing possessed. The one is land and the other is a human being. 


But in the case we are discussing, both wisdom itself and he who possesses 
it are of the same nature. 

15. Moreover, in that case what is possessed is something different 
from the possessor; in this case the possessor and the possessed are in 
the same object. A field is possessed in accordance with legality, wisdom 
in accordance with nature. The former can be alienated and given over 
to another person, but the latter never leaves its master. So you have no 
reason to compare things which are so different from each other. 

I had begun to say that the things in question could be two and yet both 
could be good; for example, wisdom and the wise person are two and you 
agree that both are good. Just as there is nothing to prevent both wisdom 
and he who possesses wisdom from being good, in the same way there 
is nothing to prevent both wisdom and having wisdom (i.e., being wise) 
from being good. 

16. 1 want to be a wise person for this reason, in order to be wise. What 
then? Is the thing without which the other thing is not good, not itself 
good? You people certainly say that wisdom is not worth accepting if it is 
not exercised. What is the exercise of wisdom? Being wise! That is what is 
most valuable in wisdom; without it wisdom is empty. If tortures are bad, 
being tortured is also bad, so much so that the former wouldn't be bad 
if you eliminated the consequences. Wisdom is the condition of a mind 
brought to completion; being wise is the exercise of a mind brought to 
completion; how can the exercise of something not be good, when that 
thing is itself not good unless it is exercised? 

17. 1 ask you whether wisdom is worth choosing and you say 'yes'. I ask 
whether the exercise of wisdom is worth choosing and you say 'yes'. For 
you say that you would not accept wisdom if you were prevented from 
exercising it. What is worth choosing is good. Being wise is the exercise 
of wisdom, just as speaking is the exercise of eloquence and seeing is the 
exercise of the eyes. Therefore being wise is the exercise of wisdom; but 
the exercise of wisdom is worth choosing. Therefore being wise is worth 
choosing; if it is worth choosing it is good. 

18. For some time now I have been condemning myself and behaving 
like those whom I criticize, wasting words on an obvious issue. Who could 
be in any doubt that if heat is bad then being hot is bad? If cold is bad then 
being cold is bad? If life is good then living is good? All of that concerns 
wisdom but is not in wisdom. But we must spend our time in wisdom. 

19. Even if we want to digress a bit, wisdom has lots of room for 
quiet retreats. Let us investigate the nature of the gods, the nourishment 
of the heavenly bodies, the various paths of the stars, whether our 

LETTER 117 69 

affairs are moved in accordance with their motions, whether they are the 
source of movement for the bodies and souls of all things, whether even 
the things which are called fortuitous are actually bound by a definite 
law and nothing in this cosmos unfolds without warning or without 
order. These issues are already somewhat removed from the education 
of our characters, but they do uplift the mind and draw it towards the 
grandeur of the very things which it is considering. But the issues which 
I was discussing just a moment ago reduce the mind and degrade it. 
They do not, as you people think, sharpen the mind; they just make it 

20. 1 implore you, do we exhaust the concern, which is so vital, that we 
owe to topics which are greater and better by dealing with an issue which 
may well be false and is certainly useless? What good will it do me to know 
whether wisdom is one thing and being wise something else? What good 
will it do me to know that the former is good <and the latter is not>? Pil 
take my chances and leave it to the dice whether the following wish comes 
true: that I get wisdom and you get being wise. We will be even. 

21. Better yet, get going and show me how to attain them. Tell me 
what I should avoid, what I should pursue, what I should focus on in 
order to strengthen a failing mind, how I might drive away and ward off 
things which make a surprise attack on me and afflict me, how I might be 
equal to so many misfortunes, how I might eliminate the disasters which 
have burst in on me, how I might eliminate the ones which I myself have 
burst in on. Teach me how to sustain grief without groaning myself, good 
fortune without groaning from others, how not to wait around for the final 
and inevitable moment, but to take refuge there myself when the time 
seems right. 

22. Nothing seems more shameful to me than to wish for death. For if 
you want to live, why wish to die? Or if you do not want to live, why ask 
the gods for something which they gave you at your birth? For they have 
arranged it so that you will die someday, even if you don't want to, and 
so that when you do want to the matter is in your own hånds; the one is 
necessary for you, the other permitted. 

23. I have read an opening statement by a very eloquent man indeed, 
one which is extremely shameful in these days. He said, 'So, let me die as 
soon as possible!' Madman, you are asking for what is already yours. 'So, 
let me die as soon as possible!' Perhaps you have grown old while saying 
such things; otherwise, what point is there in delay? No one is holding 
you back. Escape as you think fit; choose any part of nature and tell it to 
give you a way out. Certainly these things are also the elements through 


which the world is governed: water, earth, air; all those things are just as 
much reasons for living as they are paths to death. 

24. 'So, let me die as soon as possible?' Just what do you mean by 'as 
soon as possible'? What day have you got planned for it? It can be carried 
out faster than you might like. Those are the words of a weak mind, 
angling for pity with that piece of self-loathing. Someone who wishes for 
death doesn't really want it. Ask the gods for life and health; if you've 
decided to die, there is this benefit in death, that one ceases to wish for it. 

25. Lucilius my friend, let us mull over these thoughts, let us shape our 
minds with these reflections. This is wisdom and this is being wise, not 
stirring up utterly pointless technicality in empty little debates. Fortune 
has put so many questions to you which you have not yet resolved. Are 
you still joking around with sophisms? How foolish it is to swish your 
weapons in the air when you have been given the signal to fight! Get rid 
of those toy weapons; you need the kind of weapons which settle things. 
Tell me how my soul can be free of the upsets of sadness and fear, by 
what means I might purge this burden of hidden desires. Let something be 

26. 'Wisdom is good, but being wise is not good.' This is the way to have 
people say that we aren't wise, so that this entire practice gets ridiculed 
for busying itself with frivolities. 

What if you heard that there are also debates about whether a future 
wisdom is something good? What doubt can there be, I ask you, that 
the granaries do not yet perceive that the harvest is coming nor does 
childhood yet understand through any strength or power that maturity 
is approaching. Health which is still to come is, in the meantime, of no 
benefit to the patient any more than a rest many months after the faet 
refreshes a runner or a wrestler. 

27. Who does not know that something in the future is not good 
precisely because it is in the future? For what is good certainly brings 
benefit; but only present things can bring benefit. If it does not benefit, it 
is not a good; if it does benefit, it is automatically a good. I am a future wise 
man. This will be a good when I am wise; meanwhile it is not. Something 
must exist before it can have a quality. 

28. So how, I beg of you, can what is still nothing already be good? 
What clearer proof could you want that something does not exist than if I 
say of it 'it is in the future'? For it is obvious that what is going to come has 
not arrived. 'Spring will be along' — so I know that it is winter. 'Summer 
will be along' — so I know that it is not summer. I think the best argument 
that something is not present is the faet that it is future. 

LETTER 117 71 

29. I will be wise, I hope, but in the meantime I am not wise. If I had 
that good, I would already be free of my present bad state. It lies in the 
future that I might be wise; on this basis you may gather that I am not 
yet wise. Those two things, good and bad, do not converge nor do they 
coexist in the same person. 

30. Let us pass over all these excessively elever trivialities and hurry on 
to things which will bring us some help. No one who is running, worried, 
to summon a midwife for his daughter in labour stops to read carefully 
through the proclamation and Schedule for the games. No one who is 
running home to a house on fire scans the checkers board to see how he 
can free his trapped piece. 

31. But, good Lord, all these things are trumpeted for you from all 
sides: your house on fire, your children in danger, your homeland under 
siege, your possessions pillaged. Add to that shipwrecks, earthquakes, and 
anything else one might fear. While preoccupied by such things, do you 
have the leisure for things which do no more than amuse the mind? Are 
you asking what the difference is between wisdom and being wise? Are 
you tying knots and then untying them, while such a massive threat hangs 
over your head? 

32. Nature did not give us such a generous supply of free time that we 
have the luxury of letting any of it go to waste. And consider how much 
is lost even to those who are most careful; some is taken from each of us 
by our own health, some by the health of our friends and family; some is 
taken up by unavoidable business, some by public affairs; sleep takes its 
share of our lives. With such a limited and fast-moving supply of time, 
time which sweeps us away, what good does it do to squander pointlessly 
the majority of it? 

33. And add to this the faet that the mind is in the habit of amusing itself 
rather than healing itself and turning philosophy into a leisure activity 
when it is really a cure. I do not know what the difference is between 
wisdom and being wise. But I do know that it makes no difference to me 
whether I know or not. Tell me, when I have learned what the difference 
is between wisdom and being wise, will I be wise? Why, then, do you 
tie me down with the words of wisdom instead of with its deeds? Make 
me braver, make me more confident, make me equal to fortune, make me 
superior to it. But I can be superior if I direct all of my learning to that end. 


LETTER 1 1 8 

Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. You demand from me more frequent letters. Let's compare accounts: 
you'll be in no position to pay your debt. Our agreement was that your 
contributions would come first, that you would write and I would reply. 
But I won't be intransigent; I know you are a good credit risk. So I will 
give in advance and will not do what Cicero, an extremely eloquent man, 
asks Atticus to do, that is to 'jot down whatever came into his head, even 
if he had nothing to say.' 

2. There can never be a lack of things for me to write about, even 
though I pass over all those things which fill Cicero's letters: who is having 
trouble with his election campaign, who is campaigning with someone 
else's resources and who with his own, who relies on Caesar in seeking 
the consulship, who relies on Pompey, and who relies on money, what a 
heartless loan shark Caecilius is — those near and dear to him cannot get 
a penny out of him at less than one percent a month! It is better to deal 
with one's own faults than those of other people, to examine oneself and 
to see how many things one is campaigning for, and not to canvass for 
someone else. 

3. Lucilius, it is a splendid thing, a source of tranquillity and inde- 
pendence, to seek nothing and to ignore completely fortune's political 
campaigns. Don't you think it delightful to stand by at your leisure and 
to watch the electoral marketplace without having to buy or sell any- 
thing — while the candidates wait anxiously in their precincts and one 
promises money, another works through an agent, someone else smothers 
with kisses the hånds of people whose hånds he will refuse even to touch 
once he is elected, all of them waiting open-mouthed for the announcement 
of the results? 

4. How much greater the pleasure enjoyed by the man who watches 
in tranquillity not the praetorian or consular elections but those greater 
contests in which some people seek annually recurring honours, or seek 
permanent political power, or successful outcomes for their military 
campaigns and triumphal parades, or wealth, or marriage and children, or 

LETTER Il8 73 

health for themselves and their families! It takes a truly great character just 
to seek nothing, to ask for no one's support, and to say 'I have no business 
with you, fortune; I am not letting you get at me. I know that you permit 
people like Cato to lose at the polis and people like Vatinius to be elected. 
I ask for nothing.' This is what it means to reduce fortune to the ranks. 

5. So one can write about these things back and forth and set out 
this material — it is always fresh and new — since we look around and 
see so many thousands of people who are troubled. In order to achieve 
a disastrous result, they struggle to overcome hardships on their way to 
misery and pursue things which they will soon have to flee from or sneer at. 

6. Who has ever been satisfied by getting something which was too 
much to hope for? Prosperity is not insatiable, as people think; it is puny. 
So it doesn't satisfy anyone. You think those things are lofty because you 
are situated far below them. The person who has reached them thinks 
they are small. I guarantee you that he will try to climb higher still. What 
you think of as the top is a mere step to him. 

7. But ignorance of the truth puts everyone in a bad way. They are 
misled by false report and so rush off towards what they think are good 
things; then, when they have suffered so much to get them, they see that 
they are actually bad or empty or less important than they had hoped. The 
majority of people admire things which deceive from a distance; what the 
crowd thinks good is the standard of importance for them. 

8. Let's enquire what the good is, so that this doesn't happen to 
us. There are several accounts of it, and different people articulate it 
differently. Some define it thus: 'the good is what entices our mind, what 
draws it to itself Right away there is an objection to this account: what if 
it entices our mind, but entices it into ruination? You know how many bad 
things are alluring. What is true and what is merely similar to the truth 
are different. So, what is good is linked to what is true; for it isn't good 
unless it is true. But what entices us to itself and lures us is merely like the 
truth. It insinuates, it pesters, it leads us on. 

9. Some people have defined it thus: 'the good is what stimulates desire 
for itself; or, what stimulates an impulse of the mind which strives towards 
it'. The same objection is made to this formulation. For many things which 
stimulate a mental impulse are pursued to the detriment of those pursuing 
them. Those who defined the good as follows did a better job: 'the good is 
that which stimulates a mental impulse towards itself in accordance with 
nature and is worth pursuing only when it begins to be worth choosing.' 
Right away this is something honourable, for the honourable is what is 
completely worth pursuing. 


io. This point reminds me to mention the difference between the good 
and the honourable. They do share something with each other which is 
inseparable from them. Only what has something honourable in it can 
be good, and the honourable is certainly good. So what is the difference 
between them? The honourable is the perfected good, by which the happy 
life is made complete and by contact with which other things are also made 

ii. Here is the kind of thing I mean. There are certain things which are 
neither good nor bad, like military service, diplomatic service, and service 
as a judge. When they are conducted honourably, they start to be good 
and make the transition from being uncertain to being good. Alliance with 
the honourable makes something good, but the honourable is good all on 
its own. Good flows from the honourable; the honourable depends only 
on itself. What is good could have been bad. What is honourable couldn't 
have been otherwise than good. 

12. Certain people have advanced this definition: 'the good is what is 
according to nature'. Note what I am saying: what is good is according 
to nature, but it is not automatic that what is according to nature is also 
good. Indeed, many things agree with nature but are so petty that the 
label 'good' is not appropriate to them; they are trivial, even contemptible. 
There is no such thing as a miniscule and contemptible good, since as long 
as it is small it is not good. When it starts to be good, it is not small. How 
is the good recognized then? If it is completely according to nature. 

13. You say, 'You admit that what is good is according to nature. 
This is its characteristic feature. You admit that other things are certainly 
according to nature but not good. So how can that be good when these are 
not? How does it attain a different characteristic feature when both have 
that one outstanding feature in common, being according to nature?' 

14. Because of the magnitude itself, of course. And this is nothing new. 
Certain things change by growing. He was an infant and became an adult. 
He has a different characteristic feature. For the infant lacked reason and 
the adult is rational. Certain things don't just become bigger by growing; 
they become different. 

15. He says, 'It doesn't become different because it becomes bigger. 
Whether you fill a bottle or a barrel with wine makes no difference; in each 
there exists the characteristic feature of wine. A small and a large amount 
of honey both taste the same.' The examples you adduce are not of the 
same kind; for in those cases they do have the same quality; however much 
they increase, it persists. 

LETTER Il8 75 

1 6. Certain things when made bigger do retain their own type and 
characteristic feature. But certain things, after many increases, are finally 
converted by the final addition, which imposes on them a condition 
different from the one they were in before. One stone makes an arch, 
the one which wedges against the sloping sides and binds them by being 
placed between them. Why does the final addition, even if it is miniscule, 
make such a big difference? Because it does not increase something but 
fills it up. 

17. Certain things slough off their previous shape as they advance and 
make the transition to a new shape. When the mind extends something 
for a long time and has become worn out by tracking its magnitude, 
then it starts to be called 'infinite'. It becomes very different from what 
it was when it looked big, but finite. In the same way we got the idea 
that something was difficult to cut; as this difficulty grew, in the end the 
'uncuttable' was discovered. This is how we progressed from what could 
barely be moved with great effort to that which is unmovable. In the same 
way something was according to nature; it was its own magnitude that 
gave it a new characteristic feature and made it good. 


LETTER 1 1 9 

Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. Whenever Fve found something, I don't wait for you to tell me 
'share it!'; I say it to myself. What is it that Fve found, you ask? Open 
your wallet: it is pure profit. Fil teach you how you can get rich very 
quickly. You are really eager to hear this, and rightly so — Pm going to 
take you on a short cut to enormous riches. Still, you will need a financial 
backer; to do business you need to take out a loan, but I don't want you 
to borrow through an agent nor do I want the brokers to be tossing your 
name around. 

2. Fil give you a ready-made backer; in the famous phrase of Cato, 'bor- 
row from yourself . No matter how small the loan, it'll be enough if we seek 
from ourselves whatever we lack. Lucilius, my friend, it makes no differ- 
ence whether you feel no need of something or you have it already. In either 
case the upshot is the same: you will not be in anguish. Nor do I instruct 
you to deny something to nature — she is unyielding, she is unbeatable, 
she demands her due — but rather I instruct you to be aware that whatever 
goes beyond nature is at the whim of others and not necessary. 

3. 1 am hungry; I must eat. It makes no difference to nature whether this 
bread is coarse or fine; she wants the stomach to be filled, not pleasured. I 
am thirsty. It makes no difference to nature whether this water is some I 
have drawn from a nearby cistern or water I have kept on snow to be chilled 
with a coolness not its own. All she asks is that thirst be extinguished; it 
makes no difference whether the cup is made of gold or crystal or agate or 
whether it is a travertine goblet or a cupped hånd. 

4. Look to the goal of all things and you will eliminate the superfluous. 
Hunger summons me; my hånd reaches out for whatever is closest; hunger 
itself will recommend whatever I take hold of. Someone who is hungry 
despises nothing. 

5. You ask, then, what it is which has caught my fancy? I think it a splen- 
did maxim, that 'a wise person is the keenest pursuer of natural wealth'. 
You reply, 'You are presenting me with an empty platter. What is this? I 
already had my account book ready and was considering what sea I might 
sail to do business, what public contract I might take on, what merchandise 

LETTER 119 77 

I should be acquiring. It is deceit to preach poverty after promising pros- 
perity.' So do you think someone poor if he lacks nothing? You reply, 
'No, but that is due to himself and his endurance, not due to fortune.' So 
do you think that he isn't rich just because his riches can never cease? 

6. Would you rather have a great deal or enough? Someone who has a 
great deal desires more and that is an indication that he does not yet have 
enough; someone who has enough has acquired what no rich person has 
attained, his goal. Or maybe you think that this isn't real wealth because 
no one was proscribed for it? Because no one was poisoned by his son 
or his wife on account of it? Because it is safe in wartime? Because it is 
unused in peacetime? Because it is neither dangerous to possess it nor 
burdensome to spend it? 

7. 'But the person who merely avoids cold, hunger, and thirst just 
has too little!' Jupiter has no more. What is sufficient is never too little, 
and what is not enough is never a great deal. Alexander is poor after 
[conquering] Darius and the Indians. Am I wrong? He seeks something 
to make his own, he scours unknown seas, sends new fleets out into the 
ocean and, as I might put it, bursts the very ramparts of the world. 

8. What is enough for nature is not enough for a human being. Here 
we have someone who would lust for something after he has everything. 
Mental blindness is so profound and each person so thoroughly forgets 
his own origins once he has made some progress. Having begun as the 
master of an obscure patch of land (and not even its undisputed master), 
he reaches the ends of the earth and is on the point of returning home 
through a world he has made his own, but Alexander is grief-stricken. 

9. Money never made anyone rich. On the contrary, it has made 
everyone long for yet more money. You ask what causes this? A person 
who's got more starts to be able to get more. To sum up the point: you 
can name anyone you like of those who are ranked alongside Crassus and 
Licinus; let him state his wealth and add together all that he has and all 
that he expects to get. If you accept my view, he is poor, but even on your 
own view he can be poor. 

10. The person, however, who has set himself up in accordance with the 
demands of nature is not just free of the feeling of poverty, he is free of the 
fear of it. But to let you know how hard it is to confine one's possessions to 
the limits of nature, this very person whom we are so constraining, whom 
you call poor, he not only has something, he even has something to spare. 

11. Riches blind people, though, and attrået them if a great deal of 
money is paraded out of some house, if all its ceilings are richly gilded, 
if the house-slaves have been chosen for their physical attributes or are 


dressed in splendid livery. The prosperity of all those people has an eye to 
public display. The person whom we have insulated from the public and 
from fortune is happy on the inside. 

12. For as far as concerns those for whom a frantic poverty has usurped 
the name 'wealth': they have 'wealth' in just the same way that we are 
said to have a fever, when in faet the fever has us. We are accustomed to 
put it the other way around: 'a fever grips him', and in the same way we 
ought to say 'wealth grips him'. The advice I would most like to leave you 
with is the advice that no one hears enough: to measure all things by one's 
natural desires, which can be satisfied for free or for very little. Just don't 
mix vices with your desires. 

13. You ask what sort of table your food is served on, on what sort of 
silver piates, how uniform and elegant the servants who bring it? Nature 
desires nothing beyond the food. 

Surely you don't ask for a golden cup when your throat is burning with thirst. 
Surely when you are starving you don't reject everything 
except peacock and turbot. 1 

14. Hunger has no ambitions. It is content if it stops. It doesn't much 
care what makes it stop. Those things are the torments inflicted by 
wretched luxury. Luxury looks for a way to be hungry even after it is 
full, for a way not to fill the stomach but to stuff it, for a way to revive 
the thirst which has been slaked by the first drink. So Horace made an 
excellent claim, that it doesn't matter to thirst what sort of cup the drink 
is served in or by how sophisticated a hånd. If you think it matters to you 
how nicely curled the boy's hair is and how translucent the cup he offers 
to you is, then you aren't really thirsty. 

1 5. Along with everything else, nature has given us this one most impor- 
tant gift: she has purged necessity of any fussiness. What is superfluous 
leaves room for choice. 'This isn't stylish enough, that's not fancy enough, 
that offends my eyes.' The great builder of the cosmos, who set forth the 
laws of living for us, has made it possible for us to attain well-being, not to 
be pampered. Everything needed for our well-being is ready and waiting; to 
be pampered, everything has to be acquired with wretched care and worry. 

16. So let us take advantage of this gift of nature, which is fit to be 
numbered among her greatest blessings, and let us reflect that she has 
done us no better service than this: whatever one desires out of necessity 
one accepts without fussiness. 


1 Horace, Satires 1.2. 114— 16. 


Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. Your letter rambled through many minor questions, but settled on 
one and asks that it be dealt with: how we have acquired the concept of the 
good and the honourable. These two are, in the view of others, different; 
in our view they are merely distinct. 

2. I will explain. Some think that the good is that which is useful. 
Therefore they apply this term to wealth, to a horse, to wine, and to a 
shoe. That is how cheap they think the good is and how utterly they think 
it descends into vulgarity. They think that the honourable is that which 
is characterized by a reasoning out of one's correct responsibility; e.g., 
the faithful care of one's father in old age, relief of a friend's poverty, 
courageous behaviour on campaign, the utterance of sensible and moderate 
views [in the Senate]. 

3. We contend that these are indeed two things, but that they are rooted 
in one. Nothing is good except what is honourable; what is honourable 
is certainly good. I think it unnecessary to add what distinguishes them, 
since I have said it often. I will say just this one thing, that we believe that 
nothing is <good> which someone can also use badly; however, you see 
how many people make bad use of wealth, high birth, and strength. 

So now I return to what you want me to discuss, how we have acquired 
our initial concept of the good and the honourable. 

4. Nature could not have taught us this; she has given us the seeds of 
knowledge but has not given us knowledge. Certain people say that we 
just happened on the concept; but it is implausible that anyone should 
have come upon the form of virtue by chance. We believe that it has been 
inferred by the observation and comparison of actions done repeatedly. 
Our school holds that the honourable and the good are understood 
by analogy. (Since this term [analogia] has been naturalized by Latin 
grammarians, I think it need not be condemned; rather, it should be 
promoted to full citizenship. So I will use it not just as an acceptable word, 
but as a common one.) Let me explain what this analogy is. 


5. We had a familiarity with bodily health; from this we realized that 
there is also a certain health of the mind. We had a familiarity with bodily 
strength; from this we inferred that there is also mental power. Certain 
generous deeds, certain kindly deeds, certain brave deeds had amazed us; 
we began to admire them as though they were perfect. There were hidden 
in them many failings which were concealed by the form and splendour of 
some outstanding deed; these failings we pretended not to notice. Nature 
orders us to exaggerate what is praiseworthy, and there is no one who 
hasn't elevated glory beyond the truth. Hence it is from these actions that 
we have derived the form of some great good. 

6. Fabricius rejected the gold of King Pyrrhus and thought that being 
able to depise royal riches was more important than a kingdom. When 
Pyrrhus' physician promised to administer poison to the king, Fabricius 
warned Pyrrhus to beware the treachery. It was a mark of the same 
character that he was not won over by gold and would not win by poison. 
We admired the great man who was swayed neither by the promises of a 
king nor by promises to harm the king, a man with a firm grip on sound 
precedent and (something very hard to achieve) blameless during war, a 
man who still thought that there was such a thing as an outrage committed 
against an enemy, a man who in the midst of the poverty which his honour 
had inflicted on him avoided riches just as he avoided poison. He said, 
'Pyrrhus, live thanks to me, and rejoice at the faet which used to cause 
you grief — that Fabricius cannot be corrupted.' 

7. Horatius Cocles stood alone blocking the narrow part of the bridge 
and ordered that his line of retreat be cut off behind his back, provided that 
the enemy be deprived of their route; he stood against his attackers until 
the timbers were torn apart and thundered massively as they collapsed. He 
looked behind himself and saw that his own danger had put his country 
out of danger and then he said, 'Come on, if any of you wants to pursue 
me on this escape route!' Then he threw himself headlong into the river; 
in the raging current of the river he was just as concerned to get out with 
his armour as he was to get out safe, and with the honour of his victorious 
armour intact he got back to his camp as safely as if he had crossed the 

8. These deeds and ones like them have shown us the likeness of virtue. 
I shall add a point which might perhaps seem remarkable: that sometimes 
bad deeds have presented us with the appearance of the honourable, and 
that what is best has shone forth from its opposite. As you know, there 
are vices which are similar to virtues and a resemblance between what 
is right and what is corrupt and shameful. Thus a spendthrift falsely 

LETTER 120 »I 

resembles a generous person, though there is an enormous difference 
between knowing how to give and not knowing how to save. Lucilius, I 
say, there are many people who do not give money but toss it around; I 
don't call a person who is angry at his own money generous. Carelessness 
imitates easy-goingness, recklessness imitates bravery. 

9. This resemblance forced us to pay attention and to distinguish 
things which are similar, in appearance at any rate, but which in faet 
differ enormously from each other. While watching those whom some 
outstanding aet made famous we began to notice who did some action 
with a noble spirit and great elan, but only once. Here we saw a man 
brave in war but fearful in political life, taking poverty with courage and 
disgrace with humility. We praised what he did but held the man himself 
in contempt. 

10. We saw another man who was kind to his friends and self-controlled 
towards his enemies, managing public and private affairs with piety and 
faithfulness; he did not lack endurance in situations which called for 
putting up with things, nor good sense in situations which called for 
action. We saw him providing generously where giving was called for and 
where struggle was called for we saw him determined, striving, and 
supporting his weary body with his courageous mind. Moreover, he was 
always the same and consistent with himself in every aet; not 'good' by 
design, but so thoroughly habituated that he not only could aet rightly but 
could not aet other than rightly. 

11. We understood that in him virtue was complete. We divided it in to 
parts: it was appropriate to curb desires, suppress fears, show good sense 
in action, distribute what ought to be allotted; we grasped self-control, 
bravery, good sense, and justice, and assigned to each its own sphere. 

On the basis of what, then, did we come to understand virtue? It was 
shown to us by this man's orderliness and fittingness and consistency, the 
mutual agreement of all his actions and the greatness which rises above 
everything. This is the source of our understanding of the happy life, 
which flows smoothly and is completely autonomous. 

12. How, then, did this very thing become clear to us? I will tell you. 
That man, the one who is complete and has attained to virtue, never 
cursed fortune, was never gloomy in his acceptance of what happened; 
believing that he is a citizen and soldier of the cosmos, he took on difficult 
tasks as though commanded to do so. He did not reject what happened to 
him as though it were something bad which fell to his lot by chance, but 
[accepted it] as though it had been assigned to him. He said, 'No matter 


what this is like, it is mine; it is harsh, it is tough, but let's get to work on 

13. And so someone who never moaned over his misfortune and never 
complained about his fate necessarily appeared to be great. He provided 
an understanding of himself to many people and shone forth like a light 
in the darkness, turning the minds of all to himself, since he was calm and 
gentle, equally at ease with divine and human things. 

14. He had a mind which was complete and brought to its own best 
condition — there is nothing higher than this except the mind of god, from 
which some part has flowed down even into this mortal breast, which is 
never more divine than when it reflects on its own mortality and knows 
that human beings were born in order to live and be done with life, that 
the body is not a home but a guest-house — and a short-stay guest-house 
at that, which you must leave when you notice that you are a bother to 
your host. 

1 5. Lucilius my friend, the most powerful indication that a mind comes 
from some loftier place is if it judges the things it deals with to be base and 
narrow, if it is not afraid to take its leave. For the mind which remembers 
where it came from knows where it is going to go. Don't we see how many 
troubles plague us and how badly this body suits us? 

16. We complain about headache sometimes, stomach ache other times, 
and again about chest troubles or a sore throat. Now our muscles trouble 
us, now our feet, then diarrhoea, then a runny nose. Sometimes our blood 
is too thick, sometimes too thin. We are besieged from all sides and then 
driven out. This is normally the experience only of those living in a foreign 

17. But even though we are stuck with such a crumbling body we 
nevertheless aim at the eternal and with our ambition we seize the full 
extent of what the length of a human life can accommodate, not content 
with money or power in any amount. What could be more outrageous or 
more stupid than this? Nothing satisfies those who are about to die, indeed 
who are dying already. Every day we stand closer to the end and each day 
pushes us towards the place from which we must fall. 

18. See what blindness afflicts our minds! What I refer to as future 
occurs at this very moment and most of it is already in the past. For the 
time that we have lived is in the same place as it was before we lived. So we 
are wrong to fear our final day, since each and every day contributes just 
as much to our death. The step during which we collapse is not the one 
which makes us tired; it just announces our fatigue. The final day reaches 
death; each day approaches it. Death plucks at us; it does not grab us all at 

LETTER 120 83 

once. So a great mind, one aware of its better nature, certainly takes care 
to comport itself honourably and industriously in the post to which it is 
stationed, but it does not judge that any of its surroundings are its own. A 
traveller hurrying by, it uses them as though they are on loan. 

19. When we see someone with this degree of consistency, why shouldn't 
we get the impression of an exceptional talent? especially, as I said, if this 
greatness is shown to be genuine by its uniformity. Continuity is a stable 
companion of what is genuine; what is not genuine does not last. Some 
people take turns being Vatinius and Cato: one moment Curius isn't strict 
enough for them, Fabricius not poor enough, Tubero not parsimonious 
enough, not sufficiently satisfied with simple things; the next minute they 
rival Licinus for his wealth, Apicius for his dinner parties, and Maecenas 
for his luxuries. 

20. The clearest proof of a bad character is restlessness and constantly 
bouncing back and forth between pretending at virtue and loving vice. 

Often he had two hundred slaves 

but often he had only ten; sometimes he spoke of kings and tetrarchs, 

and all manner of greatness, but sometimes he said 'All I want 

is a small table, a pinch of plain salt, and a cloak, no matter how coarse, 

to ward off the cold.' If you had given this parsimonious man, 

content with little, the sum of 1,000,000 sesterces, in five days 

he'd have had nothing. 1 

21. Many people are like the one Horace describes here, never the same 
as himself, not even similar; that's how far off course he goes. 'Many,' did 
I say? Virtually everybody. There isn't anybody who doesn't change his 
advice and his wishes every day. First he wants a wife, then a mistress; 
first he wants to be king; then he behaves in such a way that no slave could 
be more fawning; first he puffs himself up in order to attrået envy, and 
then backs down and sinks below the level of the genuinely humble; at 
one moment he scatters money around, and the next minute he steals it. 

22. This is the most powerful proof that a mind is unwise. It goes 
around as one person after another and is inconsistent with itself, and I 
think nothing is more shameful than that. Consider it a great thing to play 
the role of one person. But except for the wise person, no one plays a single 
role; the rest of us are multiple. At one point we will seem prudent and 
serious to you, at another financially reckless and frivolous. We change 
roles frequently and put on a mask opposite to the one we just removed. 
So demand this of yourself. You undertook to present yourself in a certain 

1 Horace, Satires 1.3. 11— 17. 


way; keep yourself in that condition right through to the end. Make it 
possible that you can be praised, or at least that you can be identified. It 
could fairly be said of the person you saw yesterday, 'Who is he?' That is 
how much he has changed. 


Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i. I can see that you will haul me in to court when I set out for you 
today's little question, one that has engaged us for quite a while now. 
Once again you will shout, 'What does this have to do with ethics?' Shout 
away, then, while I, first of all, give you other opponents to prosecute, 
Posidonius and Archedemus (they'll accept the court's jurisdiction), and 
then say to you, 'It is not the case that everything which is ethical makes 
our character ethically good.' 

2. Some things bear on human nutrition, some on exercise, some on 
clothing, some on teaching, some on pleasure. But they all bear on human 
beings even if not all of them make humans better. Different things have 
different impacts on our character. Some things improve our character 
and make it order ly, while others investigate the nature and origin of our 

3. When <I ask> why nature made humans, why she made us superior 
to the rest of the animals, do you think I have left character far behind? 
Not so. For how will you know what character you should have unless you 
find out what is best for a human being, unless you look into its nature. 
You won't really understand what you should do and what you should 
avoid until you have learned what you owe to your own nature. 

4. You reply, 'I want to learn how to reduce my desires and to reduce 
my fears. Rid me of superstition; teach me that what is cailed happiness is 
frivolous and empty, that it can very easily have one syllable prefixed to 
it [viz. 'un-']\ I will satisfy your desire; I will both encourage the virtues 
and beat down the vices. Though someone might judge me excessive 
and immoderate in this area, I will not give up attacking wickedness, 
restraining the wild passions, reining in pleasures which are bound to end 
in pain, and railing against wishes and prayers. Why not? We have wished 
for the greatest evils and the source of all that demands consolation is what 
we give thanks to the gods for. 

5. Mean while, allow me to scrutinize some matters which seem a little 
more removed from our concerns. We were investigating whether all 


animals have an awareness of their own constitution. The main reason 
why it seems that they do have such an awareness is that they move their 
limbs easily and effectively just as if they had been trained for doing so. 
Each of them is nimble with regard to its own parts. An artisan handles his 
tools with ease, the helmsman of a ship directs the rudder with skill, the 
painter arranges many different pigments to help him make a likeness and 
applies them with great rapidity, cheerfully and efficiently moving back 
and forth between the palette and his canvas. An animal is comparably 
agile in all the ways it makes use of itself. 

6. We are regularly amazed at skilled dancers because their hånds are 
able to represent all kinds of subjects and emotions and because their 
gestures are as quick as the words. What technique provides for them, 
nature provides for animals. No one has trouble moving its limbs; no one 
hesitates in making use of its parts. And they do so just as soon as they are 
born. They arrive with this knowledge. They are born fully trained. 

7. 'The reason,' he replies, 'that animals move their parts appropriately 
is because if they moved them otherwise they would feel pain. So, as you 
yourselves say, they are compelled and it is fear rather than their wish 
which puts them on the right path.' But that is false. For things which are 
driven by necessity move slowly and what moves on its own has a certain 
nimbleness. Anyway, animals are so far from being driven to this action by 
pain that they strive for their natural motion even when pain impedes them. 

8. Thus a baby who practices standing and getting used to moving 
around falls as soon as it begins to tax its strength. Over and over again it 
cries as it gets up again until despite the pain it works its way through to 
what nature asks of it. When certain animals which have a hard shell get 
turned upside down they twist themselves around and wave their legs and 
wrench them until they are again in an upright position. An upside-down 
turtle feels no pain, yet it is disturbed by a desire for its natural position 
and will not give up struggling and flailing itself until it gets onto its feet. 

9. Therefore all animals have an awareness of their own constitution 
and that is the reason why they are so ready at managing their limbs; 
we have no better evidence that they come into life equipped with this 
knowledge than the faet that no animal is clumsy at using itself. 

10. He objects, 'According to you, the constitution is the leading part 
of the soul in a certain disposition relative to the body. How can a baby 
comprehend this, which is so complicated and sophisticated that even you 
can scarcely explain it? All animals would have to be born dialecticians 
to understand that definition — which the majority of adult Romans find 

LETTER 121 87 

11. Your objection would be sound if I were saying that all animals 
understand the definition of their constitution rather than the constitution 
itself. Nature is more easily understood than explained. And so that baby 
does not know what a constitution is yet knows its constitution; and it 
does not know what an animal is yet is aware of being an animal. 

12. Moreover, it does have a crude, schematic, and vague understanding 
of the constitution itself. We too know that we have a mind. But we do 
not know what the mind is, where it is, what it is like or where it comes 
from. Although we do not know its nature and its location, our awareness 
of our mind stands in the same relation to us as the awareness of their own 
constitution stands to all animals. For they must be aware of that through 
which they are aware of other things. They must be aware of that which 
they obey and by which they are governed. 

13. Every one of us understands that there is something which sets in 
motion his own impulses, but does not know what this is. And he knows 
that he has a tendency to strive, though he does not know what it is or 
where it comes from. In this way too babies and animals have an awareness 
of their own leading part, though it is not adequately clear and distinct. 

14. He objects, 'You say that every animal has a primary attachment 
to its own constitution, but that a human being' s constitution is rational 
and so that a human being is attached to himself not qua animal but qua 
rational. For a human is dear to himself with respect to that aspect of 
himself which makes him human. So how can a baby be attached to a 
rational constitution when it is not yet rational?' 

1 5. There is a constitution for every stage of life, one for a baby, another 
for a boy, < another for a teenager >, another for an old man. Every one is 
attached to the constitution he is in. A baby has no teeth — it is attached 
to this constitution, which is its own. Teeth emerge — it is attached to this 
constitution. For even the plant which will one day grow and ripen into 
grain has one constitution when it is a tender shoot just barely emerging 
from the furrow, another when it has gotten stronger and has a stem which 
though tender is able to carry its own weight, and yet another when it 
is ripening, getting ready for harvest and has a firm head: but whatever 
constitution it has reached, it protects it and settles into it. 

16. A baby, a boy, a teenager, an old man: these are different stages of 
life. Yet I am the same human as was also a baby and a boy and a teenager. 
Thus, although everyone has one different constitution after another, the 
attachment to one's own constitution is the same. For nature does not 
commend me to the boy or the youth or the old man, but to myself. 
Therefore the baby is attached to that constitution which is its own and 


which the baby then has, not to that constitution which the youth will 
one day have. For though there remains something greater to grow into, 
it does not follow that the condition it is born into is not natural. 

17. An animal has a primary attachment to itself; for there must be 
something to which other things can be referred. I seek pleasure. For 
whom? For myself. Therefore I am taking care of myself. I avoid pain. 
For whom? For myself. Therefore I am taking care of myself. If I do 
everything because I am taking care of myself, then care of myself is prior 
to everything. This care is a feature of all other animals; it is not grafted 
onto them but born in them. 

18. Nature brings forth her offspring, she does not toss them aside. 
And because the most reliable form of protection comes from what is 
closest, each one is entrusted to itself. And so, as I said in earlier letters, 
young animals, even those just born from their mother or freshly hatched, 
immediately recognize what is threatening to them and avoid deadly 
dangers. Animals which are vulnerable to raptors tremble at the shadows 
of birds which fly overhead. No animal comes into life without a fear of 

19. He objects, 'How can a newborn animal have an understanding of 
things which protect it or threaten death?' First, the question at issue is 
whether it understands, not how it understands. And that they actually do 
have this understanding is obvious from the faet that they would not do 
anything more if they did understand. Why is it that a hen does not flee 
from a peacock or a goose, but does flee from a hawk, though it is so much 
smaller and not even familiar to them? Why do chicks fear a cat but not 
a dog? It is obvious that there is within them a knowledge of what will 
cause harm which has not been derived from experience, for they display 
caution before they get the experience. 

20. Next, so that you don't conclude that this happens by chance, they 
do not in faet fear anything other than what they should nor do they ever 
forget this form of responsible guardianship. Flight from danger is their 
lifelong companion. Further, they don't become more fearful as they live, 
which makes it obvious that they don't acquire this trait by experience but 
by a natural love of their own safety. What experience teaches is both slow 
and varied; what nature gives is uniform for all and immediate. 

21. If, however, you demand it of me, I will tell you how it is that 
every animal is compelled to understand what is dangerous. It is aware 
that it is constituted of flesh, and so it is aware what can cut flesh, what 
can burn it, what can crush it, which animals are equipped to do it harm; 
it regards their appearance as hostile and threatening. These things are 

LETTER 121 89 

interconnected; for as soon as each animal is attached to its own safety it 
also pursues what will help it and fears what will harm it. Its impulses 
towards what is useful are natural, as are its avoidances of the opposite. 
Whatever nature taught occurs without any thinking to prescribe it and 
without any deliberation. 

22. Do you not see how technically sophisticated bees are at making 
their hives, how harmoniously they share the labour of the whole task? 
Don't you see how far beyond any human rivalry the spider's web is, 
how much work is involved in organizing the threads, some positioned in 
straight lines as stabilizers, others arranged in circles which become less 
closely spaced as one goes further from the centre, all in order to catch 
smaller animals (the intended victims of the web) as though in a net? 

23. That skill is born, not learned. And so no animal is more learnéd 
than any other. You will notice that all spiders' webs are the same, that 
the cells of honeycombs are the same in every corner. What art teaches 
is variable and inconsistent. What nature hånds out is uniform. She has 
given out nothing more than protection of oneself and skill at that, and 
that is why they also start life and learning simultaneously. 

24. And it isn't surprising that the things without which an animal's 
birth would be pointless are born along with the animal. Nature has 
bestowed on animals this primary tool for survival, attachment to and 
love for oneself. They could not have been kept safe unless they wanted 
to be — not that this alone would have done them any good, but rather 
without it nothing else would have done them any good either. You won't 
find contempt for itself in any animal, <nor> even neglect of itself. Even 
mute and stupid beasts, sluggish in every other respect, are skilied at 
staying alive. You will notice that those which are useless to others do not 
let themselves down. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

i . Already the day is getting shorter. It has diminished a bit, but even so 
there is still a generous amount left if one arises with the day, so to speak. 
But you are more responsible and even better if you get ahead of the day 
and catch the first light. The person who lies in bed half asleep while the 
sun is high and whose day doesn't start till noon is shameful. And still this 
counts as pre-dawn for many people. 

2. Some people have reversed the functions of day and night and don't 
pry open their eyes, heavy with yesterday's hangover, before night begins 
to fall. The situation of those whom nature, as Vergil says, located beneath 
our feet on the other side of the world: 

when first the rising sun breathes on us with his gasping horses 
for them rosy sundown kindles his lagging lights 1 

— that is what life (rather than their location) is like for these people; they 
are opposite to everyone else. 

3. There are some 'antipodeans', [Irving] in the same city [as we do], 
who, as Marcus Cato said, have never seen the sun either rising or setting. 
Do you suppose that those people know how one ought to live, when they 
don't even know when} And do these people fe ar death, when they have 
buried themselves alive in it? They are as ill-omened as night birds. Let 
them pass their dark periods amidst wine and perfume, let them drag 
out this whole period of perverted wakefulness with feasts — even feasts 
cooked separately in several courses — even so they aren't banqueting, 
they are conducting their funeral rites. The Feast of the Dead, at least, is 
held in the daytime. 

But, my Lord, no day is long when one is doing something. Let us 
lengthen our life — action is both our responsibility in life and an indication 
that we are alive. Let's put a limit to night and shift part of it into the 

4. Birds which are being readied for the feast are caged in darkness so 
that they can easily fatten up when they aren't moving. In the same way 

1 Vergil, Georgia 1. 250-1. 

LETTER 122 9 1 

the lazy bodies of those who lie about without any exercise puff up ... a 
slothful stuffing sets in. But the bodies of people who dedicate themselves 
to darkness appear revolting. Their skin colour is more disturbing than 
that of pasty invalids. They are pale, lazy, and feeble. Their flesh is 
cadaverous although they are still among the living. But this, I would say, 
is the least of their failings. There is far more darkness in their minds! 
One of them is stunned, another's eyes go dark and he envies the blind. 
Who has ever had eyes for the sake of darkness? 

5. Do you ask about the cause of this mental depravity, avoiding day 
and shifting one's whole life into the night? All vices rebel against nature; 
all of them abandon the proper order of things. This is the purpose that 
luxury aims at, to rejoice in what is twisted and not just to deviate from 
what is straight but to get as far away from it as possible, and stand directly 
opposed to it. 

6. Don't you think that people are living contrary to nature if they 
drink on an empty stomach, take wine when they are hungry and then 
move on to eating when they are drunk? And yet this is a common failing 
of young people — they build up their strength <so that> they can do 
their drinking amidst the naked bathers pretty much on the threshold 
of the bathhouse — worse, so that they can steep themselves and then 
immediately clean off the sweat stimulated by their constant and feverish 
drinking. Drinking after lunch or dinner is just banal — that is what old 
farmers do, people who just don't understand real pleasure. Straight wine 
is enjoyed when it isn't awash in food, when it can get straight to the brain. 
Drunkenness is really fun when it occupies a vacuum. 

7. Don't you think that men who wear women's clothes are living 
contrary to nature? Aren't men living contrary to nature when they aim to 
gleam with youthful good looks when they are well past it? What could be 
more cruel or more wretched? Will he never be taken for a man, though 
he can be taken by a man for a good long time? And when his sex ought to 
have exempted him from abuse, will not even his age liberate him from it? 

8. Don't people who long for roses in winter live contrary to nature, 
and those who force lilies in mid-winter with baths of warm water and 
careful changes of location? Don't people who plant apple trees at the 
top of towers live contrary to nature, people whose groves wave in the 
wind up on the rooftops, with roots planted where it would have been 
presumptuous for treetops to have reached? Do they not live contrary to 
nature when they build foundations for baths in the sea and when they 
don't think they can have a sophisticated swim unless their warm pools 
are rocked by wind and waves? 


9. When they have made up their minds to want everything contrary to 
nature's custom, at last they totally defect from nature. 'It is day — time 
for sleep! It is night-time — let' s get some exercise, let' s go for a drive, let' s 
have lunch. It's nearly daylight — time for dinner. It won't do to do what 
ordinary people do — living in a hackneyed and vulgar style is revolting. 
Day time can be for ordinary people — let' s do something unique and 
special today.' 

10. In my view, those people are as good as dead. How far are they, 
really, from their own genuinely un timely funerals — after all, they live by 
torchlight and candlelight! I recall that many people lived this lifestyle all 
at the same time, among them Acilius Buta, the praetorian; he is the one 
to whom Tiberius said, after he had squandered his enormous inheritance 
and was pleading poverty, 'You have woken up a bit late.' 

11. Julius Montanus was giving a poetic recitation, an acceptable poet 
and one known both for his friendship with Tiberius and for the chili in 
their relationship. He used to fill his poems with sunrises and sunsets; 
so, when some people complained that his recitations lasted all day and 
said that one should not attend them, Pinarius Natta said 'Surely I 
cannot be more generous — I am ready to listen to him from "sunrise" to 

12. When Montanus had recited these verses: 

Phoebus begins to send forth his burning (lames, 
Rosy day begins to spread, and already the sad swallow 
Returning to her nest begins to feed her shrill nestlings 
And shares it out with gentle beak . . . 

Then Varus, a Roman knight, a friend of Marcus Vinicius, and a 
devotee of high-class feasts (a privilege earned by his cutting wit) shouted 
out 'Buta is ready for sleep!' 

13. Then, when Montanus had later recited: 

Already the shepherds had bedded down their flocks in the fold 
Already slow night begins to grant quiet to the sleepy lands 

the same Varus said 'What are you saying? Is it night already? I must go 
to make my daily visit to Buta!' Nothing was more famous than this man's 
inverted lifestyle — one which, as I said, many people lived at that same 

14. Now the reason why some people live this way is not that they think 
that night itself has something particularly pleasant about it, but that they 
aren't satisfied by anything ordinary; and that daylight is burdensome to 

LETTER 122 93 

a guilty conscience; and that daylight, because it costs nothing, is a bore 
for someone who desires or despises everything depending on how much 
or how little it costs. Moreover, extravagant people want their life to be 
talked about as long as they live. For if they aren't talked about they think 
they are wasting their effort. And so from time to time they do something 
to stir up rumour. Many gobble up their fortunes, many keep mistresses. 
To earn a reputation among people like that you need not just something 
extravagant but something notorious. In a city preoccupied with this sort 
of thing, run-of-the-mill bad behaviour does not get you a scan dal. 

15. I had once heard Albinovanus Pedo (and he really was a very 
sophisticated storyteller) relate that he used to live above the house of 
Sextus Papinius — he was one of these 'daylight avoiders'. He said 'At the 
third hour of the night I hear the sound of whips, so I ask what he is doing. 
The answer is that he is reviewing the household accounts. At the sixth 
hour of the night I hear an excited uproar, so I ask what is going on. The 
answer is that he is doing his voice exercises. At the eighth hour of the 
night I ask what the noise of wheels is supposed to mean. The answer is 
that he is going for a drive. 

16. At dawn there is a lot of scurrying about, slaves are summoned, 
the storekeepers and cooks are in an uproar. I ask what is going on. The 
answer is that he has asked for a sweet drink and some porridge, since 
he has just finished his bath. The comment was made, "his feast took up 
more than a day!" Not at all. For he lived very frugally and consumed 
nothing except the night.' And so when some people said that Sextus was 
a stingy miser, Pedo rejoined 'You would even say that he lives on lamp 

17. You should not be surprised if you find so many distinct kinds of 
vice. They are quite varied and have many manifestations; one cannot 
grasp all their types. Concern for what is straight is a simple matter; 
concern for what is crooked is complex and admits of as many new 
deviations as you could want. The same thing applies to character. The 
character of those who follow nature is easy and unrestricted, with few 
variations. The perverted are in great conflict with everyone else and with 

18. But I think that the chief cause of this disorder is a fussiness 
about the ordinary lifestyle. Just as they mark themselves off from other 
people by their dress, by the sophistication of their dinner parties, by the 
splendour of their vehicles, they also want to be marked off by the way 
they use their time. People who regard notoriety as the reward for going 
astray do not want to commit ordinary mistakes. 


19. All those who live backwards, if I can put it that way, are looking for 
notoriety. And so, Lucilius, we must cling to the life which nature has laid 
down for us and not deviate from it. If we follow nature everything is easy 
and unimpeded, but if we struggle against it then our life is no different 
than that of men who are trying to row against the current. 2 


2 This is an allusion to Vergil, Georgus 1. 199— 202. Compare at 122.2 above. My thanks 
to James Ker for pointing this out. 


Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

1 . 1 have arrived late at night at my Alban estate, worn out by a journey 
that was uncomfortable rather than lengthy. I find nothing prepared 
except myself. And so I repose my weariness on a small couch and am in 
faet content with the faet that the cook and the baker are delayed. For I 
can discuss with myself this very matter: that what you take lightly is not 
burdensome, that nothing is worth being upset about, <as long as you 
don't> make it worse by getting upset all on your own. 

2. My baker has no bread; but my house-manager does, and so do my 
steward and the tenant-farmer. You say, 'But it's poor-quality bread.' Just 
wait — it will turn in to good bread. Hunger will make even this into soft, 
white bread. That just shows that one should not eat until hunger says to 
do so. Therefore I will wait and won't eat until I either start to have some 
good bread or cease to be fussy about the bad bread. 

3. It is essential to get used to modest food; even people who are wealthy 
and well equipped meet with many difficulties due to the circumstances 
of time and place . . . No one can have whatever he wants, but one can have 
this: not to want what one does not have and to make cheerful use of what 
is on offer. A well-behaved stomach which is tolerant of insult makes a 
major contribution to freedom. 

4. You could not imagine how much pleasure I derive from the faet 
that my weariness is content with itself. I don't go looking for masseurs, a 
bath, or any other remedy but time. For rest relieves what hard work has 
accumulated. The meal before me, such as it is, is more satisfying than an 
inaugural banquet. 

5. You see, I have undertaken a kind of impromptu trial of my mind; 
this kind of test is more candid and revealing. For when the mind has 
prepared itself and commanded itself to endure, then it is not so obvious 
how much real firmness it has. The most reliable proofs are those which 
the mind gives without warning, if it contemplates troubles not just with 
equanimity but with contentment; if it does not flare up in anger, does not 
quarrel; if it makes up for the lack of something which it ought to have 


been given by not wanting it and if it reflects that although there might 
be something missing from what it is accustomed to, the mind itself lacks 

6. With many things we don't realize how superfluous they are until we 
begin to lack them. We made use of them not because we were supposed 
to have them but because we did have them. And how many things do 
we acquire just because others have done so, because most people have 
them! One cause for our troubles is that we live by the example of others; 
we do not settle ourselves by reason but get swept away by custom. If 
just a few people did something we would not want to imitate it, but 
when many people start to do it then we pursue it — as though it were 
more honourable because it is more common. Once a mistake becomes 
widespread we treat it as being right. 

7. Nowadays everyone travels with a guard of Numidian horsemen or a 
phalanx of runners ahead of them; it is shameful to have no one to shove 
passers-by out of the way and to indicate by big clouds of dust that a 
high-ranking man is approaching. Nowadays everyone has mules to carry 
their glassware, their agate, and their collection of vessels engraved by 
famous artists; it is shameful for people to see that the only baggage you 
have is what can be knocked around with impunity. Everybody's retinue 
rides along with faces covered in creams so that the sun and the cold 
don't harm their tender skins; it is shameful that among the boys who 
accompany you there should be not one whose healthy face is free of 
cosmetic ointments. 

8. You must avoid conversation with all these people. These are people 
who pass on their vices and transfer them from one place to another. We 
used to think that the worst people were those who bandy words, but 
there are some now who bandy vices. Their conversation does a lot of 
harm, for even if it has no immediate effect it leaves seeds in our mind and 
pursues us even when we have left them behind, a bad influence which 
will re-awaken later on. 

9. Just as those who have heard a concert carry away with them in their 
ears that tone and the pleasure of the songs — which hinders their thoughts 
and won't let them focus on serious matters — so too the conversation of 
flatterers and those who praise their vices lingers long after the talking has 
stopped. Nor is it a simple matter to drive the pleasant sound from one's 
mind; it presses on, it endures, and it comes back after a break. So one 
must close one's ears against harmful voices, especially at first. For once 
they have started and been allowed in they become bolder. 

LETTER 123 97 

10. This is how one arrives at this kind of speech: 'Virtue, philosophy, 
and justice are just the babble of empty words. The only happiness is doing 
well by your life. Eating, drinking, spending one' s inheritance — this is 
living, this is what it means to remember that you are mortal. The days 
pass by and life which cannot be reclaimed slips away. Are we hesitating? 
What good does it do to be "wise" and to heap frugality onto a lifespan 
which will not always be able to absorb pleasures — [do so] now, anyway, 
while it can, while it must. Get ahead of death and ... for yourself whatever 
death will take away. You don't have a mistress, nor a boy who can make 
your mistress jealous.You go around sober each and every day. You dine 
as though you had to have your account-book approved by your father. 
This isn't living; it's helping out with someone else's life'. 

11. 'It is madness to take care of your heir's estate and deny yourself 
everything, so that your huge inheritance might turn your friend into your 
enemy; for the more he inherits, the more he will rejoice at your death. 
Don't give a damn for those grim and censorious critics of other people's 
lives who hate their own and aet like public school-marms. Don't hesitate 
to put a good life ahead of good reputation.' 

12. You must flee from these voices as from those which Ulysses 
did not dåre to sail by unless lashed to the mast. They have the same 
power — they draw you away from your country, from your parents, from 
your friends, from the virtues, and entice you into a life which is shameful, 
and if shameful then wretched. How much better it is to pursue the right 
path and to bring yourself to the point where only what is honourable is 
satisfying to you. 

13. We will be able to accomplish this if we are aware that there are two 
kinds of things which can either entice us or repel us. The enticements 
come from wealth, pleasure, beauty, ambition, and everything else which 
is attractive and appealing. The repulsions come from effort, death, pain, 
public shame, and a restricted lifestyle. Hence we ought to train ourselves 
not to fear the latter and not to desire the former. Let us work against our 
inclinations, withdraw from what is attractive and rouse ourselves against 
what assails us. 

14. Do you not see the difference in posture of those going downhill 
and those going uphill? Those who descend lean their bodies back; those 
who are climbing lean forward. For if you are going downhill, Lucilius, 
then throwing your weight forward is going along with vice, and if you are 
going uphill then leaning back is doing the same. It is downhill towards 
pleasure, but one must go uphill towards what is harsh and tough. When 


climbing we must drive our bodies onwards, when descending we must 
hold them back. 

15. Do you now think that I am saying that the only people who are 
dangerous to hear are those who praise pleasure and stimulate the fear of 
pain — which is daunting enough on its own? I also think that we can be 
harmed by those who, in the guise of the Stoic school, urge us on to vices. 
For they claim that only the wise and learned man is a lover. 'He alone 
is suited for this art. Similarly, the wise man is most skilled at drinking 
and banqueting. So let us explore the question, up to what age youths are 
proper objects of love.' 

16. These are concessions to Greek custom, and we would do better to 
pay attention to the following: 'No one is good by accident; virtue must 
be learned. Pleasure is a lowly and weak thing, worthless, shared with 
brute beasts; the most paltry and contemptible animals flock to it. Glory 
is something empty and unstable, more fickle than the wind. Poverty is 
only bad for you if you resist it. Death is not evil — do you ask what <it 
is>? Death alone is the even-handed law which governs the human race. 
Superstition is an insane mistake; it fears those it should love and offends 
those it reveres. For what difference does it make whether you deny that 
the gods exist or slander them?' 

17. This is what you must learn — no, learn by heart. Philosophy should 
not provide excuses for vice. The sick man has no prospect of health if his 
doctor exhorts him to dissipation. 



Seneca to Lucilius, greetings: 

I can recount for you many precepts from earlier generations 

If you don't recoil and it isn't repellent to learn such trivial matters. 1 

But you do not recoil and no amount of technicality drives you away. Your 
technical sophistication does not limit you to pursuing the big questions; 
similarly, I approve of the faet that you judge everything by whether it 
makes any contribution to moral progress and only get annoyed when the 
extremes of technicality accomplish nothing. I will try to make sure that 
doesn't happen even now. 

The question is whether the good is grasped by sense perception or by 
reasoning. Connected with this is the faet that the good is not present in 
dumb animals and in infants. 

2. All those who treat pleasure as the most important thing take the view 
that the good is perceptible; but we, who locate what is most important 
in the mind, think it is intelligible. If the senses passed judgement on the 
good then we would never reject a pleasure, for every pleasure entices 
us and all of them please us. And conversely we would never willingly 
undergo any pain, for every pain hurts our senses. 

3. Moreover, people who get excessive satisfaction from pleasure and 
those whose fear of pain is extreme would not deserve our condemnation. 
But in faet we do disapprove of those who are enslaved to gluttony and 
lust and we hold in contempt those whose fear of pain prevents them from 
ever undertaking a manly endeavour. Yet what is their offence if they are 
just listening to their senses, that is, to the judges of what is good and bad? 
For you have surrendered to the senses the power to decide about what to 
pursue and what to avoid. 

4. But of course it is reason which is in charge of that business. Just as 
reason decides about the happy life and about virtue and about what is 
honourable, so too reason decides about what is good and what is bad. For 
on their view jurisdiction over the better part is granted to the part that 

1 Vergil, Georgics 1.176— 7. 


is least worthy: sense perception, a dull and blunt sort of thing, and even 
more sluggish in humans than in the other animals, passes judgement on 
the good. 

5. What if someone wanted to distinguish among very small objects not 
with his eyes but with the touch. For this task no discrimination is keener 
and more focussed than that of the eyes, ... to distinguish good and bad. 
You see that someone whose sense of touch makes the judgements about 
what is good and bad in the most important area of life is wallowing in the 
depths of ignorance about the truth and has tossed to the ground what is 
lofty and divine. 

6. He replies, 'Just as every science and art ought to have something 
self-evident and grasped by the senses from which it may arise and grow, 
so the happy life derives its foundation and starting point from what 
is self-evident and subject to sense-perception. Surely you say that the 
happy life takes its starting point from what is self-evident.' 

7. We say that what is according to nature is happy, and that it is obvious 
and immediately apparent what is in faet according to nature, just as it is 
evident what is unimpaired. I do not claim that what is natural and is imme- 
diately present to a newborn is good, but rather the starting point for the 
good. You grant to infancy the highest good, pleasure, and the result is that 
the newborn starts out in the situation which the fully developed human 
being eventually attains; you put the treetop down where the roots belong. 

8. If someone were to say that the foetus lurking in its mother's womb 
with its sex still undefined, soft, incomplete, and unformed, was already 
in possession of something good, then he would be blatantly in error. But 
there is an awfully small difference between the one who is just receiving 
the gift of life and the one who is lurking like a lump in its mother's 
innards. As far as understanding what is good and bad is concerned, both 
are equally mature, and an infant is no more capable of the good than is a 
tree or some speechless animal. But why is the good not present in a tree 
and in a speechless animal? Because reason is not there either. This is why 
it is also not present in the infant, since it too lacks reason. It gets to the 
good when it gets to reason. 

9. Some animals are non-rational; some are not yet rational; some are 
rational but still incomplete. The good is in none of these; reason brings 
the good along with itself. So what is the difference between the things I 
have listed? The good will never be in an animal which is non-rational; 
the good cannot now exist in an animal which is not yet rational; the good 
can now exist in an animal which is rational but still incomplete, but it is 
not actually present. 

LETTER 124 101 

10. This is my point, Lucilius. The good is not to be found in just any 
body nor in just any age, and it is as far removed from infancy as the last is 
from the first, as what is complete is from its starting point. Therefore it 
is not present in a body which is soft and just starting to become unified. 
Of course it is not present, any more than it is present in the seed. 

11. You might put it this way. We are familiar with a kind of good for 
a tree and for a plant. But it is not present in the seedling at the moment 
when it first breaks through the soil. There is a kind of good for wheat. 
But it is not yet present in the young green shoot nor when the tender 
head of grain first pokes out from the husk, but when the summer sun 
and the appropriate passage of time have brought the grain to ripeness. 
Every nature only produces its own good when it is fully developed, and 
so likewise the good of a human being is not present in a human being 
except when his reason has been completed. 

12. But what is this good? I will tell you: an independent mind, upright, 
subordinating other things to itself and itself to nothing. Infancy is so far 
from having this kind of good that even childhood cannot aspire to it, and 
adolescence can only aspire to it with impudence; things are going well in 
old age if it is achieved after prolonged and focussed attention. If this is 
good, then it is intelligible too. 

13. He says, 'You said that there was a kind of good for a tree, a kind 
of good for a plant; so there can be a kind of good for an infant too.' The 
genuine good is not present in trees, nor in dumb animals. What is good 
in them is called 'good' by courtesy. You say, 'What is it?' That which is 
in accordance with the nature of each thing. Certainly the good cannot in 
any way occur in a dumb animal; it belongs to a better and more fortunate 
nature. There is no good except where there is room for reason. 

14. Here are four natures: tree, animal, human, god. The latter two, 
which are rational, have the same nature, different only in that the one 
is immortal and the other is mortal. So of these two, nature completes 
the good of one (god, that is), and effort that of the other (human). The 
others, the ones which lack reason, are only complete in their own nature, 
not genuinely complete. In the end the only complete thing is that which 
is complete in accordance with the nature of the cosmos; but the nature of 
the cosmos is rational; the rest can be complete in their own kind. 

15. In natures where there cannot exist the happy life, there also cannot 
exist that which produces the happy life. But the happy life is produced 
by good things. The happy life does not exist in dumb animals <nor does 
that which > produces <the happy life>: the good cannot exist in a dumb 


1 6. A dumb animal grasps things which are present by means of sense 
perception; it recalls past events when it encounters something that can 
remind sense perception, just as a horse recalls the road when it is brought 
to the starting point of the road. Certainly when it is in the stable it has no 
recollection of the road, no matter how often it has travelled it. The third 
part of time, the future, is utterly irrelevant to dumb animals. 

17. So how can we think that the nature of animals is complete when 
they do not have access to the complete range of time? For time consists of 
three parts, past, present, and future. Animals have only the part which is 
shortest and most transitory, the present. They rarely remember the past 
and even it is never recalled except by the stimulus of things which are 

18. So the good of a complete nature cannot exist in an incomplete 
nature. Alternatively, if that sort of nature has the good, then so do 
piants. I do not deny that there are in dumb animals powerful and 
energetic impulses towards what seems to be according to nature, but 
those impulses are disorderly and confused. The good, however, is never 
disorderly or confused. 

19. 'What, then?' you say, 'are dumb animals moved in a disturbed 
and disorganized manner?' I would say that they move in a disturbed and 
disorganized manner if their nature were capable of order. But as it is, 
they move in accordance with their own nature. For something can be 
disturbed if it can sometimes be undisturbed; something can be worried 
if it can sometimes be free of worry. Vice is only present in what can 
have a virtue. Dumb animals have this sort of movement by their own 

20. But to avoid detaining you too long: there will be a kind of 
good in a dumb animal, there will be a kind of virtue, there will be 
something complete, but not the good or virtue or something complete in 
an unrestricted sense. For these attributes only inhere in rational things, 
who are granted the ability to know why, to what extent, and how. So, the 
good is in nothing which does not have reason. 

21. What, you ask, is the relevance now of this debate, and how will 
it benefit your own mind? Fil tell you. It exercises and sharpens the 
mind and, at the least, since the mind is bound to be doing something in 
any case, keeps it busy with an honourable employment. And it is also 
beneficial in that it slows down people who are rushing into moral error. 
But I will <also> say this: I can in no way be of greater benefit to you 
than if I show you what your good is, if I distinguish you from the dumb 
animals, if I place you alongside god. 

LETTER 124 103 

22. Why, I say, do you nourish and exercise the strength of your 
body? Nature has given greater strength to cattle and beasts. Why do 
you cultivate physical beauty? Whatever you do, you will be outdone in 
attractiveness by dumb animals. Why do you pour enormous effort into 
doing your hair? Whether you have it flowing in the Parthian style or 
bound up in the German mode or in disarray as the Scythians wear it, 
still, any horse's mane will be thicker and the mane on a lion's neck will 
be more beautiful. Though you train yourself for speed, you won't be as 
fast as a hare. 

23. You ought to give up on competitions you are bound to lose, since 
you are striving for goals that are not yours, and turn back to your own 
good. What is it? Obviously, it is a mind improved and pure, rivalling god, 
rising above human limitations, regarding nothing that is beyond itself as 
its own. You are a rational animal. So what is the good in you? Reason 
brought to completion. Challenge reason to go from where it is now to its 
own final goal, <allow> it to grow as great as it can. 

24. Decide that you are happy when all of your joy comes from within 
you, when you gaze upon the things which people seize, wish for, protect 
and yet find nothing which you would — I don't say 'prefer', but nothing 
you would want. I'll give you a brief guideline by which you can measure 
yourself, by which you can tell that you have become complete: you will 
only have what is yours when you come to understand that the least 
fortunate are fortunate. 



(LETTERS 58, 65, 66) 

The commentary on Letters 58 and 65 benefitted especially from remarks 
by Nick Denyer, David Sedley, and Robert Wardy. I am also grateful for 
advice and encouragement from John Magee. 

The three letters in this group share a focus on themes in Piatonic and 
to a lesser extent Aristotelian philosophy. 58 and 65 have commonly been 
treated together, not just because of this intrinsic similarity but also because 
they have been regarded as a valuable source for information about the 
early development of 'middle Platonism'. The focus on the possible roles 
of Posidonius, Antiochus of Ascalon, Eudorus of Alexandria, and others as 
source (direct or indirect) for Seneca's views on Piatonic and Aristotelian 
doctrine has sometimes drawn attention away from careful analysis of the 
letters themselves. It has been unusual for each letter to be analyzed in its 
entirety and in its own right. When this is done it becomes less plausible to 
separate out the intractable problems of source criticism from other aspects 
of the letters. Scholarship on 66 has been less enmeshed in source-critical 
debates but is in other respects similar to 58 and 65. Although each letter 
is discussed separately in the commentaries which follow, a few general 
remarks about method and current literature may be helpful. 

The basic literature includes Bickel 1960; Dillon 1996; Donini 1979; 
Dorrie and Baltes 1997-2002: vol. 4., esp. 291 ff and 310 ff; Mans- 
feld 1992; Rist 1989; Schonegg 1999; Sedley 2005; Theiler 1964; and 
Whittaker 1975. 

The best sustained account of 58's contribution to the understanding 
of earlier Stoic theory is provided in Brunschwig 1994 (with useful 
elaboration in Barnes 2003: 116-18); Brunschwig 2003; Caston 1999; and 
Long and Sedley 1987: ch. 27. 

For discussion of the place of 58 and 65 in the Piatonic and Aristotelian 
school traditions see Mansfeld 1992: 84-109; Sedley 2005: n. 13 gives a 
resumé of other pertinent literature. See also Dorrie and Baltes 1987-2002: 
vol. 4, commentary on 105.1, 106. 1, 11 6.1, and 11 8.1. Barnes 2003 is the 


current last word on the later ancient method of collection and division 
for which this letter is often the earliest source; concern with collection 
and division in general goes back to Plato. 

In this commentary I shall be more concerned with giving an account 
of Seneca's letter in its own right rather than in terms of its usefulness as a 
source for earlier Stoicism or (possibly later) Platonism. This is closest to 
the general intent of D. Sedley (2005) who employs 58 and 65 to shed light 
on the character of Seneca's relationship with the reinvigorated Platonism 
of his day. 

The starting point for recent discussion of the letter is (as Mansfeld 
says) Donini 1979. Donini tends to see Seneca as being absorbed (in 
part for personal and emotional reasons) by the attractions of an already 
highly developed scholastic form of middle Platonism, a philosophical 
model which stands in strong opposition to the Stoicism to which Seneca 
normally adheres. The result of this general interpretation is that he 
detects commitments to scholastic middle Platonism in much of 58 and 
65 where one might just as easily see no more than Seneca's interest in 
aspects of Plato's dialogues. Donini (1979: 151 and 167, n. 1) regards it 
as beyond question that Seneca can have done no more than turn a few 
pages of a few Piatonic dialogues and begins his entire exposition from 
the belief that 'the Platonism which Seneca presents in these two letters 
is that which was current in the handbooks and philosophical schools 
of his time, the era of middle Platonism'. (A more open-minded view 
about Seneca's possible use of Piatonic dialogues is articulated by Currie 
1966: 83-4.) Similarly, Whittaker (1975: 146) rests his confidence that 
the key parts of 58 are directly dependent on written middle Piatonic 
doctrines on the hypothesis, no longer widely accepted, that there existed 
a full Greek commentary on Plato's Timaeus, esp. 27d-28a, in the century 
before Seneca. Bickel's argument that the key sections of these letters are 
a mere translation of a source text (like his argument that the 'friend' of 
58.8 is Annaeus Amicus, a freedman working in Seneca's own library), 
has not carried much conviction, though Whittaker (1975: 144-5) * s 
supportive of the claim. Given the state of our knowledge about organized 
schools of Platonism before Seneca's day, these are unprovable claims 
which should not be used preemptively to control the interpretation of 
these two letters. That said, it is certainly true that similarities between 
the content of the Piatonic portions of these letters and later Platonist 
treatises can tell us a good deal about the development of Platonism in 
the first century ad. Dorrie-Baltes provides a discussion of some aspects 
of these letters from this point of view; while not fully convincing, they 

group i (letters 58, 65, 66) 109 

at least avoid the excesses of Bickel's approach. For a balanced view of 
how Seneca proceeded, see Schonegg (1999: 86-7), who argues that in 58 
Seneca drew on Plato's work directly and took advantage of the existing 
Platonist commentaries and excerpts (such as they may have been) and 
also on actual discussions with friends. Considerable weight is given to 
the independence of mind which Schonegg (soundly in my view) suggests 
was a source of pride for Seneca. 

Letter 58 purports to be a report to Lucilius about a discussion among 
Seneca and some friends about Piatonic themes. At least one friend (amicus 
noster 58.8) is an expert in Piatonic metaphysics and seems also to be well 
versed in the corresponding theories of Aristotle. Seneca is silent about 
the identity of these philosophical companions, though he is prepared to 
name the Romans Fabianus and Cicero (58.6), also philosophical writers, 
as authorities for the use of essentia as a translation for the Greek term 
ousia. Since Seneca is elsewhere ready to name Greek philosophers and 
to discuss their views, his silence about the identity of the Platonist(s) he 
reports here is intriguing. (The closest parallel for Seneca's practice here 
which comes readily to mind is Cicero's designation of the possibly Stoic 
sources for De Legibus I as 'learned men' rather than as Stoics, let alone 
named individual Stoics.) 

Sedley (2005; see below on 65) suggests that Seneca's connections with 
the contemporary Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Cornutus might be 
relevant; he also argues for the possibility that a Platonist (whose date is 
otherwise hard to determine) named Severus is part of the Stoic-Platonic 
syncretistic atmosphere which influences the letter. Cornutus wrote in 
Greek and seems to have published on Aristotle's Categories as well as 
on Stoic theology. But it is worth recalling that he is never mentioned 
by Seneca in any work. Rist (1989: 2010- 11) reviews the wide range 
of earlier suggestions about the sources for the Piatonic themes in these 
letters and himself thinks there is a single Platonizing source for both 
letters and that Arius Didymus is most likely, though Eudorus not to be 
ruled out. Dillon (1996: 135-7) a l so sees substantial Piatonic influence 
here and considers Philo before settling on Eudorus as the likeliest source 
for 58, 65, and other Platonizing doctrines in Seneca. Theiler 1964 devotes 
a lengthy discussion to showing the relationship of Seneca's views in 58 
and 65 to various Greek sources for Platonism and argues that Antiochus 
is the source (37-55); Donini 1979 also argues at length (appendice A) for 
Antiochus on different grounds from Theiler's. 

But no matter who (if anyone) is to be thought of as the Piatonic friend, 
Seneca did not need to have a single source (and certainly not necessarily 


a written source: see the sensible remarks of Sedley 2005: 135) for the 
views he reports. A widely read and discerning man like Seneca could have 
derived these views on the basis of diffuse reading of Plato and Platonists 
over a long period of time; lectures by philosophers are another obvious 
source; and it is always possible that the truth about the sources for 58 and 
65 is exactly what Seneca says it is: conversations with friends. In 76 Seneca 
reports that he was still attending a school, no doubt Stoic, but there is 
no reason to doubt that he also heard Platonists lecture from time to time; 
in 77.6 a 'Stoic friend' is given a significant role. 58, 65 and many other 
letters establish that Seneca was comfortably familiar with an atmosphere 
of Stoic-Platonic debate and discussion. Source-critical reconstructions 
and arguments about the identity of the philosophers will inevitably be 
speculative; it is most clear that Seneca as the author of these letters 
wants his readers to see him as operating in an atmosphere of friendly and 
collegial philosophical exchange. Unlike Victor Caston (1999: 151, n. 10), 
who follows Mansfeld (1992: 84-5, n, 22), I can see no reason to doubt 
that when Seneca says T he is speaking for himself. Our primary interest 
should be in Seneca's own interests and commitments and that will be the 
primary focus in this commentary; see Sedley 2005: 125 and n. 19. 

The themes of 58 suggest that Seneca was interested in the Apology 
(though it seems to contribute only the reference to the gadfly, but see also 
65.24 and note) as well as the Timaeus, the Phaedrus, the Phaedo, and quite 
possibly the Sophist. Seneca knows a great deal about Platonism (there 
is certainly abundant indication of his interest in the Phaedo and other 
dialogues) and chooses to portray himself as part of a group which can 
productively (but not professionally) discuss Piatonic as well as Stoic ideas. 
Whether he (as opposed to those who influenced him) held strong views 
about the relationship of Plato to Stoic thought is less clear, though (as 
Robert Wardy has observed) at 108.38 Plato is invoked in close connection 
with leaders of the Stoic school. Such signs of a deep interest in Platonism 
should not be taken as decisive in an assessment of Seneca's affiliation 
to other schools, for in many piaces Epicureanism attracts an equally 
sympathetic attention from Seneca. If any school is most commonly 
opposed by Seneca it is the Peripatetic — arguably the most plausible and 
therefore threatening opponent of Stoic moral theory — but that does not 
deter Seneca from a serious discussion of Aristotle's causal theory in 65 or 
from recounting a version of Platonism influenced by Aristotle in 58. 

Perhaps the best general view about Seneca and his relations with other 
schools is this: that he knew a great deal about many schools and was 
interested in them; that he consistently preferred the central doctrines 


of Stoicism and regarded it as his own school; that he had no reason 
to assume that Stoics were right about all the important questions or 
free of serious limitations, any more than he thought that other schools 
had nothing to contribute to the intellectual and moral growth at which 
philosophy aims. Seneca chooses to emphasize relations with different 
schools in different connections and may even have had a general plan to 
display for his readers the relationship of Stoicism to the main schools of 
his day. In Natural Questions 7.32 Seneca offers general reflections on the 
state of philosophy at Rome, an indication of his interest in the subject 
generally rather than just his own school. 

Commentary on 58 

Thematic division 

1-4: A discussion of Plato leads to reflections on Latin as a 
language for philosophy and the wastefulness of turning up 
one's nose at archaic terms which might be useful. 
5-7: Even the use of artificial terms can be justified if the meaning 
requires it. The topic is 'being' in Plato (to on) and Seneca 
renders it 'what is'. 
8-12: Understanding Plato's six senses of 'what is' requires 
an explanation of hierarchical classification by genus and 
species. 'What is' is the highest and most general classifica- 
13-15: The competing Stoic theory that the highest genus is 

16-22: Plato's six senses of 'what is'. 
22-4: The impermanence of all material being. 
25-31: The benefit to be had from such technical discussion. 
32-7: Death and the mind-body relation. 

Seven sections (nearly a fifth of the letter) are devoted to the introductory 
discussion about language; eighteen sections (about half of the letter) are 
devoted to the ostensible main theme, the six modes of being according to 
Plato; the balance of the letter is devoted to reflections (mostly on the value 
of external 'goods') provoked by the metaphysical discussion. Perhaps the 
most striking feature of the letter's general strategy is the way it draws 
an essentially Stoic conclusion on the basis of a fundamentally Piatonic 
metaphysical discussion. As Seneca says with regard to Epicureanism, 
what is true is one's own (12. 11). 


58.1 For the familiar theme of lexical limitations of Latin as a vehicle 
for philosophical discussion and the difficulty of tinding the appropriate 
translation for Greek philosophical terms, see, for example, Lucretius, 
DRN 1. 136-45, 1. 831-4, 3260; Quint. Inst. 2.14; Seneca, De Ira 3.4.2, 
Ben. 2.34.4, Tranq.An. 2.3,9.2, 1 17.5. At 74. 17 Seneca discusses 'preferred 
indifferents', Greek proegmena, and says 'let them be called commoda and, 
to use our own tongue, producta'. Producta is a calque translation of 
the Greek term, unlike commoda, a term Cicero used as a translation 
for a different technical term (euchrestemata, Fin. 3.69) while rendering 
proegmena as praeposita. At iii.i Seneca cites with approval Cicero's 
translation for sophismata i cavillationes' . Seneca's particular interest in 
58 is with the translation of the Greek term to on (being). See also 
Schonegg 1999: 78-83. (For other examples in Seneca see 'Seneca in his 
Philosophical Milieu', ch. 1 of Inwood 2005.) 

Seneca here objects to the fastidium ('fussiness', but the term has a 
strong overtone of aesthetic contempt as well) with which certain words 
are treated. His view is that 'fussiness' about language and style is counter- 
productive when there is a need for clarity to promote understanding. Here 
the need comes from a discussion of various aspects of Plato's thought 
(hyperbolically, 'a thousand things') but in what follows immediately the 
need arises from consideration of earlier Latin poetry. Both philosophical 
topics and 'ancient' literature lie outside the range of 'contemporary' style 
and so require a certain tolerance. Seneca himself is a literary master and 
a self-conscious stylist in Latin prose. That he urges aesthetic latitude in 
both literary and philosophical contexts is noteworthy. 

58.2 Mention of the Apology would be an obvious prompt for a discussion 
of how to translate the Greek word for 'gadfly'. Seneca and his friends 
are to be understood as discussing Piatonic ideas in a Greek context and 
the Greek text of at least one dialogue in some detail, but doing so in 
Latin — hence the need for an original Latin term rather than a borrowing 
from Greek. Given what follows in the rest of the letter, we should, 
no doubt, think of their discussion as covering a number of Piatonic 
doctrines, whether or not dialogues such as the Phaedo, Phaedrus, Sophist, 
and Timaeus are to be thought of as explicit subjects of the discussion. 

58.2-5 Three quotations establish that asilus is the obsolete Latin 
term for 'gadfly' and that Latin has a number of obsolete terms whose 
loss obscures the meaning of poets as recent and popular as Vergil 
(not to mention ancient poets such as Ennius and Accius). For the 

LETTER 58 113 

interest in antiquated Latin diction Seneca has a precedent in Horace 
(Ep. 2.2.115-18), an author often cited in the letters. In 58.5 Seneca 
defensively insists that his discussion should not be taken as an indication 
that he is masting time on philology for its own sake, but rather making a 
general point about how linguistic change threatens our comprehension 
of important texts, such as Vergil's. The suggestion, perhaps, is that the 
philosophical discussion which follows needs no more justification than 
does an appreciation of Vergil and should not be dismissed for being as 
irrelevant to contemporary interests as is archaic Latin literature. On the 
gadfly and Seneca's approach here, see Henderson 2004: 147-8. 

58.5 'how much in Ennius and Accius has been obscured by the disuse 
of words'. Alternative translation: 'how many words in Ennius and Accius 
have been overtaken by disuse'. 

58.6 essentia. Cicero is cited as an authority for the legitimacy of the 
term since he is an authority for proper use of Latin prose (as Vergil is 
for verse). However, essentia is not known from the surviving works of 
Cicero and this text of Seneca seems to be our only evidence that he used 
the term. Commentators have assumed that Seneca is here claiming that 
Cicero coined the term as a translation of ousia. But that is probably not 
what it means to say that he is the authority (auctor) for it. It makes less 
sense to describe him as 'influentiaP (locuples) if it is a matter of coining 
the term, and in this paragraph Fabianus (a favourable stylistic model 
for Seneca — see 40.12, 52.11, 100) is also said to be an auctor recentior 
for the term. Seneca can hardly have thought that it was 'coined' twice. 
The point, rather, is that if Cicero isn't a sufficiently 'modern' stylistic 
paradigm, then Fabianus will do; in 100 Fabianus seems to be a preferred 
model for style. Quintilian (2.14.2 and 3.6.23) attributes use of the term 
essentia to one Sergius Plautus (presumably the same Plautus described 
in 10. 1. 124 as in Stoicis rerum cognitioni utilis) but does not say there that 
Plautus coined it; at 8.3.33 Quintilian does cite ens and essentia as being 
new formations by Plautus. We do not know Plautus' date. Calcidius, in 
his commentary on the Timaeus 290-3, apparently uses essentia for ousia 
in a Stoic sense (SVF 1.86, 88 and LS 44DE). 

'Indispensable thing' (res necessaria) is a difficult phrase. Nicholas Denyer 
has suggested 'a topic we must deal with'. (See also Sedley 2005: 123 
and n. 15.) In faet it can be interpreted in both ways without conflict and 
the Latin supports both translations. Essentia is 'an indispensable thing' 


in the sense that as a universal substrate (the foundation of all things) it 
is a component of the world and all its contents and therefore it is also 
indispensable in the sense that any proper account of physics must include 
it. The Latin Platonist Apuleius of Madaura {PI. 1.6) uses essentia as a 
translation for ousia and says that there are two essentiae, one intelligible 
and one perceptible by the senses. He also uses substantia as a synonym for 
essentia. (Donini 1979: 160-1 argues for more similarity between Apuleius 
and Seneca than seems plausible.) 

'by its nature containing'. Alternatively, if natura is nominative, 'a nature 
containing ... '. 

58.7 'one-syllable'. To on is obviously two syllables. To, though, is the 
defmite article while on is the participle of the verb 'to be' in the neuter 
singular form. Seneca's interest is in the substantive word, not in the 
article (for which there is no counterpart in Latin). For Seneca, 'syllable' 
often has a metaphorical significance. In 48.6 a semantic paradox turns in 
part on the use of 'syllable'. In 71.6 pedants reduce philosophical substance 
to mere syllables. In 117. 5 and 121.4 Seneca refers to altering Latin terms 
by slipping in unnatural extra syllables. In 88.3 and 88.42 'syllables' are 
the stuff of philological pettiness unconnected to moral substance. See 
Henderson 2004: 148-9. 

'noun with a verb'. Perhaps better: 'a substantive [the participle used as 
a noun] with a verb phrase', since quod est ('what is') is a noun clause 
containing a relative pronoun and a finite verb. 

In 58.11 the term 'what is' is referred to as 'inappropriate' {parum 
proprium). We might ask in what sense this is so. The idea seems to 
be that Seneca uses quod est because it is more or less natural Latin, 
unlike the coinage essentia, but that somehow it is not as suitable a term 
as essentia would be; perhaps this is because of its unfamiliarity. (Note 
that Seneca asks permission to use essentia and then does not do so.) 
That may also be why he does not use ens, a term which he might have 
tried as a translation for to on (Quint. Inst. 8.3.33 nientions ens alongside 
essentia as having been coined by Sergius Plautus). He may, indeed, be 
making the point that one can often get at the key ideas of even quite 
subtle discussion without resorting to stylistically disruptive coinages; if 
so, then he is also allowing that a philosophically adequate translation is 
still less than ideal if it loses the exotic quality of the original technical 
term. Margaret Graver has suggested that parum proprium indicates that 

LETTER 58 115 

the term is not sufficiently exact, too broad in its meaning, with proprium 
being equivalent to the Greek idioti. Jonathan Barnes has suggested that 
Seneca merely repeats in 58.11 his sensitivity to the lack of grammatical 
correspondence between the Greek (a nominalized participle) and the 
Latin (a noun clause), as in 58.7. 

58.8 Having settled on 'what is' as the topic, Seneca explicates Piatonic 
doctrine on how the term is used. It is worth observing that the way he 
has chosen to designate the topic ('what is') reinforces the implication of 
the Greek term (to on): that the subject is not 'being' as a feature of things 
which are or as an aspect of the world more generally, but rather that the 
subject is defined extensionally — all those things which, in faet, are. This 
is to be the kind of ontology which starts from an inventory approach 
(setting forth all the things which purport to be) and then moves on to 
grapple with the common features of those things. Donini (1979: 168, n. 3) 
thinks that Seneca is confused in the way he sets out the problem. 

The idea that 'what is' has six senses in Plato will strike readers of Plato 
as surprising. First, it is not obvious to modern readers that Plato at any 
point takes the view that the 'senses of being' can be enumerated, let alone 
that the number of relevant senses would be six. (See below on 58.16-22.) 
The phrasing here provides a clue. Literally, Seneca reports that 'what is' 
'is said in six ways by Plato' — and the idea that an item of philosophical 
interest is said in several ways, two ways, or more than two ways is familiar 
from Aristotle's works rather than Plato's. In faet, the claim that 'being is 
said in many ways' is fundamental to Aristotle's basic approach to ontology. 
It is hard, then, to repress the thought that this presentation of Piatonic 
ontology is mediated by a familiarity with Aristotle's metaphysics and by- 
an at least passive conviction that Aristotle's method in metaphysics is 
compatible with Platonism — if not required for it. Speculation about the 
source of such a mediating influence is characteristic of most scholarship 
on this letter, but such speculation has proven to be indecisive and it seems 
less profitable than a simple acknowledgement that an interesting form 
of philosophical fusion (involving Stoicism, Platonism, and Aristotelian 
ideas) is in play. 

Seneca attributes to his learned friend the view that being is said in 
six ways in Plato, but it is Seneca' s claim that an explanation of these six 
senses of 'what is' requires that he first establish the existence of genera 
and species. Nevertheless it seems fair to attribute that view to the friend 
as well, since the actual classification of senses which follows mentions 
them explicitly. 


Seneca's starting point is to isolate the most basic use of the term, which 
he assumes to be its use to pick out the highest genus in a hierarchical 
classificatory account (a divisio, diairesis) of all things. He proposes to work 
from the bottom up ('pick things out . . . starting in reverse order') and 
in that way to arrive at the 'primary genus'. Since the highest term in 
such a classification turns out to be something relatively abstract, there 
are epistemological advantages in starting at the bottom with things closer 
to us (in the sense of being more familiar to our ordinary perceptions of 
the world). This methodological preference is reminiscent of Aristotle's 
distinction between what is more knowable to us (gnorimon hemin) and 
what more knowable in itself (gnorimon hapids), but Plato himself treats 
collection as a necessary preliminary to division (e.g., Phaedrus 266b). See 
Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4 (1996): 311. 

58.9-12 Seneca begins with species rather than individuals (horse, dog, 
human, etc.) and ascends in the direction of the summum genus 'what 
is'. He could, in faet, have begun with a lower level of classification, 
individuals: Dobbin, Rover, Cato, and so forth. But it is only when he has 
described this highest genus that Seneca turns to consider existent items 
below the species level such as individual human beings and various non- 
arbitrary subgroups (nationalities and physical types). We may conclude, 
then, that Seneca is not driven by a programmatic commitment to an 
epistemology founded in particular acts of sense-perception of individuals 
(as Aristotle may have been and Plato was not). But neither is he presenting 
systematically a kind of top-down metaphysical derivation from a highest 
entity (as some later Platonists do). Perhaps he is wise to avoid both 
extremes. After all, it is not particularly a matter of common sense to insist 
that one start with concrete individuals (since one can quite reasonably 
hold that what we see is first and foremost a kind: 'What do you see? A 
horse.' Epicurean epistemology may have taken such perception by kinds 
as fundamental: D.L. 10.33 w i tn Asmis 1984: ch. 1). And it is certainly 
not obvious to anyone (let alone Lucilius or the assumed readers of this 
letter) that there even is a summum genus of being — so it wouldn't make 
sense to begin an exposition by demanding an acceptance of such an 
abstraction. This suggests, then, that Seneca is showing a sensitivity to 
the need to bring his readers along somewhat gently as he moves into 
relatively difficult new themes. 

58.9 The first step in the ascent is to pick out species which are 
coordinate with each other and have something important in common. 

LETTER 58 117 

(Cf. D.L. 7.61 on Stoic theory; the issues of Aristotle Cat. 5 are relevant 
background to Seneca's discussion here, though it is not clear how directly 
he was aware of them.) Seneca chooses the least controversial kind of 
case in which the species are biological kinds: human, horse, dog. The 
common feature is described as a 'linkage' (vinculum), a difficult term to 
interpret (perhaps inspired by desmos at Plato's Philebus i8cd). Minimally, 
it is a common feature which justifies us in linking them together under 
a higher classification. A more robust account of what 'linkage' means 
would interpret it as a real shared essence which is in faet identical in each 
of the species and pro vides a causal explanation of their shared observable 
features. Seneca's language here ('contains', 'ranged above') is not precise 
enough to indicate how strong an account he has in mind — if, indeed, he 
is thinking about such questions. 

'Starts to be' (coepit). Seneca often uses (see e.g., Ben. 1.11.6, 5.19.9, 
58.22, 118.11, incipit at NQ_ 1.3.8) this kind of phrasing without making 
it clear whether the relation he has in mind is causal or epistemic. In 
this passage, though, the ascent is most likely epistemic, so no doubt he 
intends something like: 'when we see the common features linking the 
various species together then we start to get a notion of the genus which 
contains them'. Compare the remarks of Mansfeld 1992: 85 fif. 

58.10 At the same level as 'animaP we find piants. The feature piants 
and animals share is having a 'soul' and so the higher category which 
contains piants and animals is 'ensouled' or 'living things'. It is important 
to observe here that in Stoic doctrine piants do not have soul; Aristotle 
clearly holds that they do (De An. 41 ^27-30, 4^32-3). Plato does not 
normally take this view (except perhaps when he treats them as animals at 
Timaeus 77ab; cf. 9oa-c). This is a reminder, then, that Seneca is discussing 
a distinctive strand in Platonism that is open to Aristotle's ideas. 

Here we must take note of a small textual issue. We need to read 
animam, soul (which seems correct in the context), not animum, mind, 
with the OCT. Hense (2nd edn.) has a note in the critical apparatus 
'animum L', the rest of the mss having animam. The Loeb and the Bude 
follow Hense and print animam. Either Reynolds has slipped up, or there 
is a typographical error in the OCT, or the collations on which Hense 
relies were in error. If, however, Reynolds is correct in his report of the 
mss it would, I think, still be necessary to emend the text to animam. 

Seneca does not repeat the details of the process involved in generating 
higher levels of 'being' sketched in the previous section (and explicated 


there with the term 'linkage'). Note that the language of containment 
continues (piants and animals are 'in' the form 'living things') as does the 
idea that a more general category is 'higher'. 

At the next higher level Seneca takes all living things as one group and 
pairs them with inanimate things like rocks. Interestingly, he gives only 
this one example of soulless bodily objects. Rocks are an obvious example 
of inanimate material objects and the normal example of the lowest level 
of the scala naturae characterized by mere hexis (Origin, On Principles 
3.1.2-3, On Prayer 6.1 = SVF 2.988-9 and discussion at Inwood 1985: 
21-6; see also Philo, Allegory ofthe Laws 2.22-3 ar, d God's Immutability 
35-6 = LS 47P, Q_and SVF 2.485). The scala is not particularly germane 
to the concerns of this letter; the main focus here is on the common 
features which ground the upwards movement ofthe classification scheme 
being developed. 

The feature shared by living and inanimate things is body and so the 
next higher genus is 'body'. It is worth noting, though, that the language 
of containment and 'height' is now omitted; body is antiquius, a term 
with richer metaphorical overtones. It suggests not just 'more basic' but 
also 'older' and 'more worthy of respect' (it is quite reasonably rendered 
antérieure by the Bude translation, the sense being 'prior to'). These are 
hints that a hierarchy of value is also in play. Note as well that Seneca 
begins to express himself in a top-down idiom: he refers to dividing 
'body', the new term at a higher level of abstraction, in to these two species 
as well as to having body emerge as a genus from consideration of its 

58.10 'ensouled [living] things'. The Greek term empsucha is clearly 
behind this phrasing. For animantia in this sense see also NQ_ 3 pref. 5.9 
and Clem. 1.18. 

58.11 Just as 'body' is the super-type above ensouled and soulless things, 
so there are both incorporeal things in contrast to the corporeal and a 
super-type above them. This is where Seneca locates 'what is', whose six 
'modes' are being explicated. The hierarchy of value persists with the 
term 'superior' (superius), which sustains the connotations of antiquius, 
even though on its own it need mean no more than 'higher'. The term 
deducantur suggests a top-down movement and also has causal overtones; 
it suggests that the higher entity is in some way the source of the lower. 
Nevertheless, Seneca refers here (as above) to dividing the higher genus 
into species rather than to the emergence of a genus from its species. 

LETTER 58 119 

The language of emergence or causality recurs at the end of 58.12. On 
balance one must say that the context is not purely epistemic; the language 
strongly suggests that in the background to this exposition there lies a 
theory of top-down metaphysical generation, even if that is not the focus 
of Seneca's interest. 

58.12 The distinction Seneca draws here between a generic genus and a 
specific genus seems to turn wholly on inclusiveness. (There is a helpful 
discussion of generic objects at Caston 1999: 187-204.) What it means 
to be a genus is to 'include' other entities; what it means to be a species 
is to be 'included'. This makes room for an orderly hierarchy of classes, 
since some classes both include others and are included by others. (This 
seems to be a normal Stoic usage: see D.L. 7.61 where the most generic 
genus is said to be 'what is' and the most specific species is said to be an 
individual, e.g., Socrates.) Having concluded here (as is also done at D.L. 
7.61) that 'what is' (the genus for body and non-body) is the highest genus, 
Seneca turns rather casually to things below the level of the species with 
which he began. Biologically natural kinds contain species or subtypes, 
but the three kinds of subtypes mentioned here are not homogeneous. 
Nationalities might be thought a poor choice for a species (though see 
Mansfeld 1992: 94-5, n. 42), for they are plausibly considered to be 
conventional traits and may be affected by various sorts of contingent 
events. The difference between a Greek, a Parthian, and a Roman is not 
on the same level as that between a horse and a dog, even to those who 
saw a fundamental difference between civilized and barbarian peoples. 

If the reference to 'colour' differences were an indication of racial sub- 
types then this division might be more like that between biological natural 
kinds. It would also be a highly unusual reference to 'races' in antiquity. 
More plausible, given the combination of skin tone and hair colour as 
criteria, is that 'colour' represents a merely qualitative sorting principle. 

The faet that individuals of the same nationality are also be treated as 
species ranged under the genus 'human being' (Seneca does not point out 
that Cato, Cicero, and Lucretius are all Romans and so could represent 
another, intermediate level of classification) confirms that Seneca is not 
particularly interested in the theory of subtypes below the level of the 
biological species and so has no coherent criterion for these divisions as he 
does for those above them in the hierarchy. 

For 'what is' as the highest genus see also S.E. M. 8.32, which shows 
that the question of the highest genus was (at least by the time of Sextus' 
source) a standard aporia. 


58.13-15 This short section has been the subject of a large litera- 
ture (see especially Sedley 1985, LS 27 commentary, and Brunschwig 
1994, esp. 110-15, Hiilser 1987-8: text 715, vol. 2) because of what 
it tells us about Stoic metaphysics; it (like 65) is also discussed exten- 
sively as evidence for the history of Piatonic thought (see, e.g., Theiler 
1964: Erster Teil passim, Dillon 1996: 135-9, P- Hadot 1968: vol. 1, 
156-63, all cited by Brunschwig 1994: 110, n. 48 and Sedley 2005: 122, 
n. 13; Mansfeld 1992: 78-109; Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4 (1996): 310-15 on 
Baustein 106. 1). 

But in the context of Seneca's discussion this section is only used to 
confirm the soundness of the classificatory division just sketched for 'Plato' 
and here we need to consider it primarily in that light. (On pp. 312-14 
Dorrie-Baltes sketch the 'tree' implied by 58.14, back-translate its terms 
into Greek, and then compare it to the so-called Porphyrian tree known 
from the much later commentary tradition. On p. 3 14 they note pertinently 
some decisive differences from Seneca's division; the Neoplatonic system 
and Seneca's are incompatible — they share 'no common denominator'. 
Hence it is preferable to set aside this later Piatonic history and focus on 
Seneca's own exposition.) 

First Seneca confirms the division by working from the top down in 
diairetic fashion. 'What is' is divided into corporeal and incorporeal by 
exhaustive contradiction. Body is similarly divided into ensouled and 
soulless (tertium non datur since ensouled and soulless are exhaustive 
within their domain). Ensouled things can be divided by whether or not 
they also have a mind and also by whether they are capable of self-motion. 
Here the exposition seems muddled, since the division into self-moving 
and fixed (roughly, animals and piants) is prior to that between the self- 
moving (animals) with minds and those without. The further division into 
mortal and immortal is presented as a division of animals, but in faet is 
a familiar subdivision of rational animals. Seneca presents a division of 
physical entities which uses exhaustive dichotomous division as its basic 
principle and so generates the scala naturae which is fairly widely shared in 
the Hellenistic period (certainly shared by the Stoics). That the principles 
of division capture this completely and economically is, in faet, a good 
reason for adopting it. Seneca has fulfilled his stated goal of justifying the 
adoption of 'what is' as the primary and highest genus. 

58.15 Seneca outlines a competing classification which Seneca attributes 
to 'some Stoics' rather than to the whole school. The value of this short 
section as a source for Stoic metaphysical theories is questionable. The 

LETTER 58 121 

most recent and balanced consideration of these extremely vexed issues 
can be found in Brunschwig 2003. 

Despite the wording at 58.13 ('the Stoics want...'), Seneca does 
not present it as the standard Stoic view (although modern scholarship 
correctly recognizes it as the mainstream Stoic view: see esp. Brunschwig 
1994: 115). And Seneca personally rejects the view he presents on the 
grounds that the highest genus he advocates is adequate, in that it contains 
everything. This, I take it, is the main requirement of theory in this context, 
and if 'what is' is adequate as a supreme genus, there is no good reason to 
join the Stoics in positing a higher level which could only be explanatorily 
redundant. Hence I disagree with Brunschwig (1994: 111-13) who holds 
that Seneca fails in 58.14 to establish his goal of showing why the Stoic 
classification is wrong and looks immediately to 58.22. 

Doubts about our ability to use this text as a reliable source for 
mainstream Stoic theories are reinforced by the observation that the not- 
beings mentioned in 58.15 (fictions such as Centaurs and Giants) are not 
among the four standard incorporeals (place, void, time, sayables, two of 
which are in faet mentioned at 58.22) — and these incorporeals are what 
mainstream Stoics treat as not-beings. It is not clear what status Seneca 
intends Centaurs and Giants to have. Caston (1999: 175-6) suggests that 
imaginem (appearance) warrants the identification of such fictional entities 
with mental figments, objects of thought which lack an objective correlate 
in the real world of material objects {ennoemata, phantasmata). This, he 
says, would enable us to give Seneca the same view as was held by Zeno 
and Cleanthes. This is an attractive suggestion, but we should note that 
we do not have independent evidence that either Zeno or Cleanthes held 
that Centaurs or Giants are concepts or figments, and that the Stoics 
Seneca cites here need only to emphasize the non-reality of Centaurs 
and Giants in order to motivate positing 'something'; they do not really 
need to deal with epistemological issues; nor does Seneca, although even 
sceptics must concede that in this passage Seneca does use some language 
drawn from the Stoic theory of concept development to talk about the 
Centaurs and Giants:/«/.«« cogitatio suggests a malfunctioning or misuse of 
our ordinarily veridical perceptual apparatus. When Seneca says that such 
a notion 'begins to take on some appearance' (habere aliquam imaginem 
coepit) despite its lack of substantia he appears to be engaging with the 
general theory of empiricai concept formation which he also develops 
for his own purposes in 120; see commentary below and 'Getting to 
Goodness', ch. 10 of Reading Seneca. 


What matters for present purposes is how this point is meant to work 
in Seneca's present exposition. He gives no explicit refutation of the Stoic 
alternative to the division he defends. Yet its function is clear enough. If 
this particular Stoic theory is wrong, then it is all the more appropriate 
to accept the division he has advanced as a preliminary to the Piatonic 
categorization of 'what is'. We need to note, first, that Seneca's own 
division is never said to be Piatonic; Seneca presents it as the necessary 
preamble to explaining the Piatonic ontology of his friend rather than as 
a Piatonic division in its own right. Further, Seneca's division, while not 
orthodox, is compatible with the key tenets of Stoic corporealism. While 
it allows for incorporeals in the classification it adheres to the Stoic notion 
of a corporeal soul and makes no allowance for incorporeal forms (which 
only appear after Seneca returns to the overtly Piatonic theory at 58.16). 

How, then, does Seneca's rapid sketch of the alternative division support 
his own? The most charitable account of the implicit argument is this. If 
'something' is the highest genus, with 'what is' and 'what is not' as its 
subtypes, then the principles used in the division require that there be at 
least one member of the class 'what is not'. Since incorporeals are already 
accounted for under 'what is' in Seneca's division (58.11, re-confirmed by 
the appearance of two Stoic incorporeals in the Piatonic account of 'what 
is' in 58.22: see Brunschwig 1994: 113), the only candidates for being 'what 
is not' would be products of mental error, items which have no reality 
(substantia) whatsoever, such as the Centaurs and Giants mentioned in 
58.15. (On the sense of substantia cf. Sedley 2005: 124, n. 18.) Through 
its error theory, Stoic epistemology can account for the faet that we think 
about such things without supposing that they have any form of reality. 
Since Seneca is only interested in their unreality the further question of 
their status as intentional objects (which is so interesting to us) is not 
addressed by Seneca. So the postulate that 'what is not' should be part 
of the classificatory scheme is redundant. If so, then the requirements 
for moving to a genus higher than 'what is' (viz. 'something') are not 
met. Hence the principles of theoretical economy count against the Stoic 
postulate that 'something' is the highest genus. 

The key point here is that on Seneca's view there exists no entity 
properly described as 'what is not'. For the mainstream Stoic theory, 
'what is' is simply identified with 'body' so that 'what is not' must be 
identified with 'the incorporeal'. If 'the incorporeal' just is 'what is not' 
then it would be classed as coordinate with 'what is' rather than as 
coordinate with 'the corporeal'. Seneca does not engage critically with the 
mainstream Stoic theory, according to which body is 'what is' and the 

LETTER 58 123 

incorporeals are four: place, void, time, lekta. He does not, for example, 
address directly the Stoic arguments for the claim that only the bodily can 
'be'. But if one sets aside the question of how useful Seneca's discussion 
here is for the reconstruction of other Stoic (or even middle Piatonic) 
theories and focusses on the question, which classification is intrinsically 
better (the one that coordinates incorporeals with bodies or the one 
that coordinates them with what is not), it is not clear that the theory 
Seneca presents is philosophically inferior, certainly not for his present 

For the use of the indefinite sense of the pronoun quid to render the 
Greek term ti ('something') see OLD quis 2 sense 3. Sedley (2005: 127-8) 
argues for retention of the standard interrogative sense of the word. 

'reality' renders the Latin word substantia. Sedley (2005: 124) suggests 
'subsistence', suspecting a translation for the Greek term hupostasis; others 
have supposed that the term translates the Greek ousia (which one would, 
rather, expect to be rendered as essentia). Whether or not Seneca thinks 
of substantia as a technical translation, it seems clear that he regards 
Centaurs and Giants as lacking any kind of reality — unlike even the Stoic 
incorporeals, they have no correlate in the world and can be accounted 
for completely by an error theory. Sedley introduces Stoic theories about 
'concepts' (ennoemata) into his discussion, but Seneca himself does not 
raise the question of the status of concepts. 

58.16 Returning to the Piatonic account of the senses of being, Seneca 
sets them out in the framework of the division he has just outlined and 
defended. The subtype of 'what is' which is incorporeal was not filled in 
above, merely provided for, so it is available as part of the framework. In 
faet, two of the conventional Stoic incorporeals are included as the sixth 
modus of being according to Plato (see 58.22 below). 

Note that here Seneca speaks of a division of all things which are into 
six modi rather than giving an account of how Plato talks of being in six 
ways (in sex modos, sex modis dici above). The Bude translation has: 'Platon 
distingue six degrés dans la totalité des étres', but nothing in Seneca's 
language requires (or even suggests) that we introduce the idea of degrees 
of being even if it is a feature of the ontology of the historical Plato. 

Nevertheless, Seneca's phrasing (in sex modos partiatur) is curious 
and confirms the suspicion that he is insensitive to the philosophical 
possibilities inherent in a careful distinction between an account of how 
we talk about the world and an account of how the world is. (Cf Sedley 


2005: 123.) A relevant philosophical precedent for such blurring might be 
found in the work of Aristotle, but in much of ancient philosophy a hasty 
commitment to the correspondence theory of truth and to a casual realism 
encourages this sort of confusion. 

58.16-22 The six modes of being. For suggestions about how these 
'modes' might be related to actual Piatonic doctrine, see Sedley 2005: 
125-6; his own suggestion, that the Divided Line inspired modes 3—6, is 
more plausible than previous speculations, but no mapping of the modes 
onto actual Piatonic doctrines is close enough to inspire confidence and 
we need not interpret Seneca's theory under the constraint of finding an 
actual Piatonic model. 

Mode 1: non-sensible being which can be thought about. This 'first' 
mode is, of course, primus, the same term used to describe the 'prima- 
ry genus' above. The contrast between the sense-perceptible and the 
thinkable is featured in Cicero's Orator in very similar terms (section 8: 
'it cannot be grasped with the eyes, the ears or any other sense; we 
embrace it only with thought and mind'). The examples of such being 
are 'generic human' or 'generic animaP. In contrast to the generic human 
which cannot be seen we can perceive the 'specific' Cicero and Cato. 
The contrast of generic animal with its species (horse and dog) is not 
obviously the same as that of the generic human with Cicero and Cato, 
though one can make it cohere by means of a daringly charitable assump- 
tion. We could, then, interpret thus: 'What is generic, e.g., generic 
human, is not subject to being seen. But a specific human is, such as 
Cicero and Cato. A [generic] animal is not seen; it is thought. But its 
species, [a specific] horse [say, Dobbin] and [a specific] dog [say, Fido], 
are seen.' 

In this interpretation, 'species' has the same sense that it has for Cicero 
and for Fido and Dobbin. But that is hardly the most obvious meaning of 
the text and it is no doubt simpler to suppose that Seneca is hasty with his 
illustrations. Above (58.12, e.g.) Seneca shows a similar looseness in his 
conception of what is generic and what is specific. What is most important 
in connection with this mode is that it is defined in epistemological terms: 
'what is' is the thinkable rather than the perceptible — a fundamentally 
Piatonic idea. Donini (1979: 154-6) treats Seneca's account here as a 
complete muddle, largely because he judges it exclusively by the standards 
of later Platonist textbooks, making no effort to grasp Seneca's point in its 
own right. Sedley (2005: 133) supposes that Seneca has here been hasty in 

LETTER 58 125 

condensation of his Piatonic source (for the character of which he makes 
some rather attractive but speculative proposals). 

Dorrie-Baltes (vol. 4, 292-4) interpret this text solely in the context 
of middle-Platonic doctrine. They construct a Greek original from which 
Seneca may be supposed to have derived this theory, but which he 
misunderstood. Where Seneca refers to a thinkable but not perceptible 
animal, with species ranged under it, they suppose that Seneca has missed 
the obvious reference to the intelligible animal of the Timaeus (for which 
there is no direct evidence in Seneca's text). 

'generic human'. This is, in faet, the earliest reference to this eventually 
widespread idea, but similar phrasing is also attested for Chrysippus 
(Stobaeus, Ecl. 1.477. 1-2 Wachsmuth). It need not have any particular 
ontological force. See Barnes 2003: 139-41. 

Mode 2: what is par excellence is a paradigm or perfect instance of the 
type in question. We are accustomed to think that Plato holds that a 
paradigm horse (e.g.) just is the thinkable and non-perceptible horse. But 
that is not Seneca's view here, and he offers us a view of Plato's ontology 
which is striking: what is par excellence is not a Form but god. For readers 
of Plato this view would need considerably more explanation than Seneca 
provides here. Evidence that Platonists before Seneca thought that 'what 
is' par excellence is god is limited: Dorrie-Baltes (vol. 4, 294, n, 3) cite 
what little there is; only Philo Quod deterius 160 antedates Seneca but the 
passage fails to bear on the question. 

Mode 3: the Piatonic 'ideas' are a third sense. Although all six modes 
are intended as an account of what Plato meant, this one is singled out 
as distinctively and personally Plato's. This means either that this is a 
Piatonic view that Platonists regard as Plato's personal contribution (in 
contrast to other parts of the theory which are broadly Piatonic but not 
personally Plato's) or that this mode is Piatonic and not shared by any 
other school; mode 1 and mode 2 are perhaps to be thought of as being 
recognized by other schools as well. 

The emphasis here is on forms as models for making something and so 
the role of the Timaeus 28a and other passages which emphasize that forms 
are what one 'looks to' in making or doing something may be suspected 
here (e.g., Euthyphro 6e, Cratylus 39oe, Hippias Major 299c, Republic 
472c, 477c, 484c). The 'ideas' govern only natural kinds on this theory, 
not artefacts (such as the bed or the shuttle) and the examples offered here 
are biological kinds (humans, fish, trees). Puzzles about the scope of the 


theory of forms raised by, e.g., the Parmenides are not considered here. 
The example of painting is only an analogy for the meaning of 'idea' here, 
though it is one familiar from Platonism. Cicero uses painting as well 
as sculpture at Orator 8-10 to capture this sense of idea, which Cicero 
translates ns formå, a term avoided by Seneca here. 

Dorrie-Baltes (vol. 4 294-6) discuss this mode and claim (295) that 
Seneca is here following a Piatonic school tradition distinct from that of 

58.18 'countless' and 58.19 'indefinite number'. Obviously not infinite 
in number. See Barnes 2003: 128 and n. 104. 

Mode 4: the idos (eidos in our customary transliteration) seems to be what 
is normally called an immanent form. The illustration of the exemplar 
(mode 3) drawn from portrait painting is applied here to underline 
the distinction between the idea and the idos. For the example drawn 
from painting, see above on mode 3 and Orator 8-10. The influence of 
Aristotelian concepts is detectable here. See also Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4, 296 
with parallels from later Piatonic sources. 

58.20 'derives'. The suggested alternative 'derived' might be right: 
the proposed emendation of Gemoll is traxit for trahit; accepting the 
emendation would give us the same tense for the two verbs in the 

58.21 On the difference between mode 3 and mode 4, compare 65.7. 
Cicero Orator 8-10 uses formå for the Piatonic idea or exemplar, while 
zlAcad. 1.30 and Tusculan Disputations 1.58 he uses species. Compare also 
Plato Timaeus 28-29, a text which is certainly in Seneca's mind here. 

Mode 5: ordinary, perceptible, middle-sized objects are said to 'be' in 
a weaker sense. It is not clear what Seneca means by saying that these 
'begin to be relevant to us.' If (as Brunschwig 1994: 112 suggests) the 
'us' refers to his own position, then the point is that it is only with the 
recognition of ordinary physical objects conceptualized in an ordinary 
manner that Piatonic and Stoic theories find common ground — this 
would be supported by the inclusion of an apparently Stoic meaning in 
the next mode. But in faet this degree of common ground with Stoicism 
was present in mode 1 (compare 58.12 and 58.16) if 58.12 is offered 
as a view shared by some Stoics (like Seneca). Compare the remarks of 
Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4, 296. 

LETTER 58 127 

Mode 6: This includes 'quasi-beings', exemplified by two out of the 
four Stoic incorporeals. It is especially noteworthy that lekta are omitted. 
Spatial concepts and time, as Denyer observes, are just the aspects of being 
which connect most closely with the shared Piatonic and Stoic themes of 
flux which emerge in the second half of this letter. 

'as it were'. This corresponds to the Greek expression hosanei, used to 
indicate a diminished sense in which a term applies (cf hosanei ti, hosanei 
poion at D.L. 7.61 and Stobaeus Ecl. 1. 136.21 — 1. 137.6 (= SVF 1.65 and 
LS 3oA,C), though no Stoic source applies it to 'being' as is apparently 
done here. 

Dorrie-Baltes (vol. 4, 297) deny that 'as it were' being is a Stoic concept 
and so suggest that here we see evidence of a Platonist exploiting a Stoic 
concept against them. 

Donini (1979: 168, n. 3) regards the entire classification as being 
ontological and treats Seneca's talk of ways in which Plato speaks of 
'being' as a result of confusion. Dorrie-Baltes also take the classification as 
being solely ontological, agreeing with Dillon that this passage is a coherent 
scheme drawn directly from a middle Piatonic handbook and suggesting 
further that it was preoccupied with interpretation of Plato's Timaeus. 
This approach seems insufficiently sensitive to the details of Seneca's text 
and to be motivated in part by the desire to find early evidence for both this 
preoccupation with the Timaeus and for fully worked-out handbooks of 
doctrinal Platonism. In both respects this may be anachronistic; it certainly 
does not strengthen the case for this view of the history of Platonism to 
invoke this letter in favour of it. 

On balance the catalogue of modi given here seems to be heterogeneous 
rather than fully systematized on any one set of principles. The classifica- 
tion given here is a mixture of an account of the ways Plato talks and of an 
independently grounded ontological classification. Numbers 1 and 5 are 
clearly quomodo dicitur (these really are ways that Plato talks) and the others 
seem more like bins in an ontological classification scheme. It remains 
contentious how those two ways of classifying are related. A mixed set 
of considerations is at work, but then perhaps this is not surprising if we 
regard the entire classification as a preparation for the question 'what is 
the use?' in 58.25 ff. 

58.22-4 This is an important transitional passage. Having first outlined 
(in his own voice) an ontological classification to support the Piatonic list 
of the senses of 'what is' (reported from the account of his philosophical 
friend), Seneca now (unambiguously in his own voice) reflects on what 


Plato and Heraclitus say about the transience of ordinary things, including 
persons. The fifth sense of 'what is' included individual human beings, 
who were explicitly denied 'being' in the first sense (58.16) and are 
evidently excluded from senses two, three, and four. Perhaps, then, the 
central purpose of the account of the six senses of being is to locate 
human individuals in a larger ontological scheme. Despite the differences 
between Stoic ontology (in either the mainstream version or the version 
Seneca apparently advocates), Piatonic and Stoic philosophers agree on 
the position of human individuals within nature: we are among the fluid 
and transient things of the world. If this is so, then the philosophical 
looseness of the exposition may be the result of Seneca's own strategy 
of presentation rather than direct evidence for some lost early middle 
Piatonic source. 

The extension of the term 'whatever' {quaecumque) in 58.22 is clearly 
the items mentioned in mode 5, things which exist in the ordinary sense of 
the word. The observations here about the flux and instability of ordinary 
things introduce the theme of the concluding phase of the dialogue which 
is its moral lesson. (See also 58.27; compare also what Seneca says in 
120. 17-18.) If that is so, then an effort is being made to suggest shared 
ground between Stoic and Piatonic theories precisely on the point of 
metaphysics which motivates a sense of detachment from the importance 
of the physical world to one's moral situation. It is worth noting that it 
is tied fairly closely to the 'Cratylean' themes in Plato and also integrated 
very closely to the not necessarily Piatonic conclusion of the letter. 

58.22 'in the ordinarily accepted sense'. For this relatively unusual use 
of communiter compare Cicero, De Officiis 3.17. On the meaning of 'in 
the strict sense' {proprie) see 58.18 proprie sunt, propria supellex (and 58.11 
proprium nomen). 

Things which 'are' in the strict sense seem to 'be' in senses one, two, 
and three of the Piatonic ontology. Things which 'are' in the fourth 
sense are probably not included, though Seneca does not emphasize their 
instability but rather their relationship to the Forms. Seneca attributes to 
Plato views about the instability of everything tangible and visible, but 
seems himself exclusively interested in the status of humans. (In 58.24 he 
compares the mutability of human beings to that of the entire physical 
cosmos.) His focus here is on the constancy of corporeal change (physical 
objects lose and add material stuff constantly). Though he says that it is 
our bodies which are 'swept along like rivers,' he includes our whole selves 
in the impermanence of things: ego ipse, nemo nostrum. Mainstream Stoics 

LETTER 58 129 

certainly take the view that our souls are corporeal and fused intimately 
with our bodies (see 'Body and Soul in Stoicism', ch. 10 of Long 1996) 
and there is no sign here that Seneca believes in souls that are our true 
selves in that they outlast the body. The T is not saved from instability 
by being identified with a soul which is separate from its body — in this 
respect the view taken here is unlike the Platonism of the Phaedo. See also 
24.19-21 for the theme 'we die day by day' {cotidie morimur). 

The mention of constant loss and replacement of the material compo- 
nents of things suggests the influence of the so-called 'growing argument', 
on which see Sedley 1982. Piatonic interest in this form of material flux is 
also manifest in the Theaetetus 152-60, Symposium 207, ' Sophist 242 (the 
Ionian and Sicilian muses), and in Aristotle's account of Piatonic ontology 
{Metaphysics g87ab). See also Theiler 1964: 13, Epicharmus fr. 2. 

58.23 Heraclitus plays an important role in the story of Piatonic emphasis 
on material instability. He is also widely regarded as an important influence 
on Stoic physics and metaphysics (and on Cleanthes' version of Stoic 
theology). Hence this passage, which appears as Heraclitus B 49a in 
Diels-Kranz 1966, suggests strongly that Heraclitus was at some point a 
focus of dialogue or debate between Stoics and Platonists. It is not obvious 
that this dialogue was at all extensive or explicit before Seneca wrote this 
passage. For a full but highly speculative source-critical account of the 
history of the 'river' fragment, see Marcovich 1967: 206-14; he suggests, 
not implausibly, that Plato's version of the fragment lies ultimately behind 
this passage. But at best Seneca gives us here an indirect reflection of a 
long tradition of attempts to interpret and criticize Heraclitus' 'fragment'. 
In assessing how much of Seneca's discussion here might be owed to 
earlier sources, we should recall that at this point he has finished his 
report of what his Piatonic friend said and is himself making a transition 
to the moral application of the doctrines which occupy the last third of the 
letter. Admittedly, it would be surprising if Stoics and Platonists had not 
debated Heraclitean themes earlier; but it is hardly necessary that Seneca 
be drawing on some specific source reporting a particular debate. Nothing 
is said here that could not be Seneca's own work. 

58.23 There is a large literature on the Heraclitean doctrine about 
rivers. In addition to Marcovich 1967: 194-214, see Kahn 1979, on his 
fragments L and LI, and Hussey 1999, ch. 5 in Long 1999. For Seneca, 

1 Thanks to Gur Zak for suggesting the relevance of the Symposium here and for other 
stimulating discussion. 


the stability of the river is found in its 'name' — we call it the same river 
despite the passage of constantly different waters. When Seneca says that 
this phenomenon is merely more apparent in the case of a river than in 
that of a person, this raises an interesting question about his views on 
the constancy of a human individual. What is there which grounds our 
unity over time beyond our mere name? Is it merely the faet that we 
keep referring to John Doe by the same name that constitutes his unity? 
This would be a much weaker view of human unity over time than the 
one suggested in 121 and even weaker than the view expressed in this 
section. For here there is a 'we' (no doubt our rational soul) that adopts 
a particular view about its relationship to the body: loving it excessively 
and fearing 'death' (i.e., the separation of soul and body) as some major 
event in life when in a very important sense it is a constant feature of our 
existence. ('Every moment is the death of a prior state' can be compared 
to 120. 17-18.) Nevertheless, Seneca describes the views 'we' take about 
the body as erroneous (dementiam nostram). Thus we cannot assume that 
Seneca adopts a Piatonic view identifying the self with an immortal soul 
(a view which would conflict with 58.22); it is left an open question what 
'we' truly are, where the locus of our diachronic unity is to be found. It 
is surely more than the mere name which constitutes the unity over time 
of a river, but something less than a Piatonic immortal soul as assumed in 
the Phaedo. 121 is perhaps the fullest account of Seneca's metaphysics of 
personal identity, but apparently he does not think it essential to provide 
full clarification in this context. 

58.24 Here Seneca emphasizes again that he is speaking primarily of the 
fluidity of individual human beings; the vulnerability and changeability 
of the entire cosmos are also mentioned. However, he seems not to be 
asserting that they form a microcosm and macrocosm with the same kind 
of instability. For a human being is perishable (caducd) while the cosmos is 
'eternaP and 'invincible'. The cosmos changes its configuration (ordo) but 
cannot perish — after all, it 'contains within itself all that it ever had'. The 
position taken here on the mutability of the cosmos is phrased in such a way 
that there could be agreement between a mainstream Stoic (whose belief in 
the eventual conflagration and reconstitution of the cosmos is firm) and a 
Platonist who thinks that according to the Timaeus the world is eternal but 
changing in its configuration and details; Seneca's view is frankly incom- 
patible with belief in the perishability of the cosmos (but see 58.29 below). 
Comparable reflections are aired by Seneca in less clearly Piatonic 
contexts: 30.11, 36.10; see also Marcus Aurelius 2.17 fif. where themes of 

LETTER 58 131 

a vaguely Piatonic and Heraclitean character are harnessed to a broadly 
Stoic message. 

Although 58.24 is clearly far more accessible than the classifications 
discussed earlier in this letter, it is still 'technicaP and so the abrupt change 
in theme at 58.25 sweeps it into the category oisubtilitas. 

58.25 As often in the letters, Seneca self-consciously marks a major 
break in the themes and point of view taken. As also happens frequently, 
the motivation here for the 'break' is a concern for the practical or 
moral Utility of the discussion. Despite the apparent naturalness of such a 
'pragmatic break' it is important to recall that this is a deliberate structural 
and thematic feature of the letter. We need to ask not just about its 
significance within the framework of the letter-writing^mo«« (Seneca the 
correspondent) but also from the point of view of Seneca as an author. To 
do otherwise would be akin to neglecting the difference between Socrates 
as a character and Plato as an author. Hence the self-conscious general 
statement about his practice (58.26) has a programmatic force: 'This, 
Lucilius, is what I normally do: from every notion, even if it is quite 
remote from philosophy, I try to dig out something and make it useful.' 
Seneca writes, it seems, for an audience aware that philosophy is a fully 
developed professional calling, even aware of a fair bit of philosophical 
doctrine; yet the audience he seems to envisage is rightly sceptical about 
the Utility of philosophy. By portraying himself as struggling with the same 
issues he guides his readers towards seeing how philosophy (if properly 
employed) can be an appropriate and productive part of their lives. 

58.25 This marks the beginning of phase 2 of the letter. The question 
(58.26) as to how the Piatonic ideae can make one better is perhaps meant 
to recall Aristotle in EN 1 (esp. 1094^32- iog7a3) on the Form of the 
Good. But now there is an answer to the challenge to find Utility in Plato's 
Forms. Beyond the recreational benefits of such philosophical activity 
(58.25), Seneca points to the value of becoming more aware of the low 
ontological status of physical objects. Why is that so useful? Such things 
are the focus of morally unstable desires, so that regarding them as to some 
extent unreal will, he thinks, make it easier to resist desire for them. Since 
Stoicism itself does not regard any physical object as less real because it 
is corporeal (indeed, just the opposite), this would appear to be a case of 
intellectual opportunism: the reason for valuing a view is independent of 
its perceived truth. In the previous section Seneca clearly preferred to 
apply the doctrine that the less permanent is less real to human bodies 


rather than to the full range of physical objects, so this application of the 
doctrine is more of a Piatonic intrusion. 

The idea that one's intellectual activity should be 'usefuP to the conduct 
of one's life in general is ultimately Socratic and it naturally pervades 
Seneca's own works. The reader of 58 will recall 55.3; the theme is also 
important in 65 and will emerge again later in the collection of letters (e.g., 

58.27 Here Seneca juxtaposes the unreality of the objects of desire with 
the character of our desire for them. We desire them as though they were 
permanent and so our achievement of them could be a long- lasting benefit 
to us. But in faet our desire to possess them in this way is tainted not 
just because of the defect in the objects of our desire, but because we 
ourselves are impermanent; even if we got them, we would not enjoy them 
for long. Despite our unstable nature ('we are weak and fluid beings') we 
sense the appeal of finding satisfaction among things which are, in faet, 
permanent: god and the heavenly bodies (see 58.24: aeterna res et invicta). 
The underlying notion is that true fulfilment of desire can only be found 
with an object which has permanence. Note that the resort to cosmological 
perfection envisaged in 58.27-8 is Stoic in its cosmology and theology. 
The demiurge here is as Stoic as it is Piatonic, as is the idea that the 
divine creator is limited in what he can achieve by the defects of the raw 
material he works with. However, at the end of 58.28 Seneca reverts to 
the markedly Piatonic notion that impermanent things are less than real. 

58.27 'soar aloft'. volitantes could be taken with 'we' or with the 'shapes' 
{formas). I prefer the image of the human mind soaring aloft to see the 
shapes or forms (as in the myth of the Phaedrus), but one could also 
suppose that Seneca imagines the forms or shapes as what is aloft for us 
to contemplate. Donini (1979: 183) suggests that the reference here is to 
the theory that the forms are the ideas in god's mind, but 'god circulating 
among them' is ill phrased to express that notion. 

58.27 'taking care' translates providentem and a suggestion of divine 
foresight or providence would not be out of place. 

For comparable cosmologically inspired flights of the imagination, see 
Cons. Polyb. 9, NQ_ 1 pref. esp. 3-17, Cons. Helv. 20, and 65.16-22. 

58.28 'ruler's concern' renders cura regentis. The influence of the Timaeus 
is obvious, but there is a hint also of monarchical responsibilities for the 

LETTER 58 133 

well-being of his people. See Clem. 1.2 (in terris deorum vice fungerer), 1.5 
(omnia quae infidem tutelamque tuam venerunt), 1.7. 

58.29-32 Rational care and its relation to longevity — the biographical 
example of Plato reveals another reward to be derived from Piatonic reflec- 
tions. This argument involves an explicit comparison of the microcosm 
of the human body with the macrocosm of the cosmos. Our intelligence 
stands to the body as the intelligence which is god stands to the cosmos. 
Rational care and foresight always need to be exercised to extend the life 
of something which is intrinsically weak and perishable. Plato showed this 
in his own case, extending his life to an ideal age by curbing his desires. 
Compare NQ_ 3.30.4-5 for the parallel of the world to the human body 
and for the importance of diligentia. 

58.29 By saying that the cosmos itself is no less mortal than we are, 
Seneca appears to be in conflict with his own account of the cosmos in 
58.24 where it is said to be eternal and invincible, merely changing its 
configuration. Two solutions suggest themselves. If cosmos (mundus) here 
designates not the physical world as a bodily object but the particular 
configuration that it has, then the two passages can be compatible. 
Alternatively, Seneca's point may be that the world, if considered without 
the intelligent planning power of god (providentia), is as mortal as we are 
but that god and matter (the two Stoic archai) are inseparably fused so 
that the eternity of the world proclaimed in 58.24 is guaranteed. Human 
intelligence is, by contrast, less integrated with our bodily nature. Sedley 
(2005: 129) interprets 58.28-9 as being about the Piatonic cosmology of 
the Timaeus on the literal creationist interpretation and implicitly takes 
58.24 to refer to a different cosmological theory. But Seneca does not 
indicate that his remarks belong to different cosmological perspectives, 
which perhaps counts for more in the interpretation of this letter than a 
desire to map its doctrine onto the Spectrum of known Platonist views. 

58.30 The ancient legend (D.L. 3.1, 3.4) was that 'Plato' was a nickname 
given to Aristocles on account of his sturdy physique (piatus is Greek for 
'broad' or 'wide'). See also Theiler 1964: 15. 

58.31 The manuscripts are corrupt here; with hesitation I follow 
Reynolds in his acceptance of Madvig's emendation (paratus sis et). 
On this reading, Seneca is making the sly suggestion that, in return for not 
having to restrain his desires as fully as did Plato, Lucilius would settle for a 


life shorter and less perfect than Plato's and the cult recognition merited 
by such perfection. Perhaps to feel otherwise would be little short of 
hybristic, but Seneca's main point seems to be that the choice about length 
of life lies to a great extent with the agent. 

For Plato's death at the age of 81 cf. D.L. 3.2. For Plato's voyages, see 
for example D.L. 3.6-23, Cicero Rep. 1.16, Fin. 5.87. 

58.32 Reflection on the trade-offs which might be made between the 
length of life and the way it is led brings Seneca to the general theme of 
the value of prolonging life into old age. A long old age is certainly not to 
be grasped at (concupiscendam), since that would be to aim one's desires 
at something inherently unstable and unachievable (see 58.27), but it is 
not to be rejected. A grasping attachment to life is as much a matter of 
excessive desire as is an excessive dedication to wine. 

Hence the key thing is to come to an explicit judgement about the 
quality of life when dealing with the issue of how long one wishes to hold 
on. If the quality of life (which is the determining factor in such matters) 
is low, then the decision not to wait for death but to take matters into one's 
own hånds is reasonable. Since living can be thought of as keeping oneself 
company (secum esse) or spending time with oneself, the decisive factor 
here (as in ordinary social relations) is the quality of one's companionship. 
Compare 6.7 on becoming a friend to oneself. 

'pleasant to be with oneself. Cf. 2.1, 6.7, 10.1, NQ_ 4a pref. 1-2. The 
maxim of Antisthenes the Cynic may be behind such reflections: D.L. 6.6. 

'bring it about directly'. On self-inflicted death see, e.g., D.L. 7. 130, 
12.10,26.10, 70.7,70.20, 77.14, 98.15-18. Foran autobiographical reflec- 
tion on the factors which might contribute to such a decision see 78.2, 
a text which also supports the conclusion in 58.36 that to choose death 
solely because of pain is a form of defeat. Also 'Seneca on Freedom and 
Autonomy', chapter 11 in Inwood 2005. 

58.33-7 Hence it is a question worth debating whether the final stretch 
of life is worth living or not — this will surely vary from case to case. The 
contrast of body and mind in 58.34 might seem to suggest that the mind 
survives without the body, but a close reading shows that this is not the 
case. See also 26.2, 78.2. 

On the image of the failing body as a collapsing building, see De Ira 
2.28.4, 120.17. 

'no crueller loss'. The integrity of the text has been challenged here, as 
by Shackleton-Bailey 1970: 353, and there is no doubt that the phrasing of 

LETTER 58 135 

the Latin seems slightly awkward. But if interpreted sensitively the force 
of the rhetorical question gives excellent sense: literally, 'by how much 
do you judge it crueller to have lost anything from life than the right 
to end it.' 

Seneca recommends a calculation of risk and the reward: a bit of extra 
time is worth little (though not nothing) while the penalty of losing the 
ability to choose the time of one's death is great. Hence the idea that 
one might consider suicide before the quality of life declines below the 
tolerable level is not an unreasonable or morbid desire. It is, rather, a 
reflection of the relative values placed on self-determination and on being 
alive. It is evident that in this passage Seneca is outlining a framework 
for making choices about when and how to die rather than establishing a 
doctrine about the right time to die which could be applied to all cases. 

'needs to be'. Both occurrences of this phrase render the Latin word 
debere. 'ought to be' might be a more conservative translation, but 
misleading if taken to indicate a moral obligation, debere indicates being 
under an obligation or having to do something either for legal/moral 
reasons or 'for reasons of efficiency, convenience, eta' (OLD s.v. 6c). 
(The obligation can also be logicai, but that is not to the point here.) 
Here it would be absurd to think that Seneca is claiming that one should 
commit suicide before the time when one is morally obliged to do so; as 
the context indicates, his concern is with our inability to carry out the 
suicide when the appropriate time comes, that is, when one can no longer 
live an appropriately human life. Seneca doesn't think we are morally 
obliged to kill ourselves then, only that it is permissible and sensible to do 
so. Anticipating that final moment is worth doing for practical rather than 
moral reasons. 

'make use of themselves', i.e., deal with oneself and one's situation with 
a normal form of agency. See Bénatoull 2006 at n. 35. See also 60.4 for a 
similar turn of phrase. This phrase is rather more what we would expect 
of Epictetus. 

58.35-6 Having offered this general recommendation about how to 
decide when life is worth giving up, Seneca turns to his own case and 
that of Lucilius. It is appropriate in the epistolary context to anticipate 
the unease his correspondent might be feeling at this discussion of how 
and when to die. It is reassuring for Lucilius to be told that Seneca is not 
applying this view pointedly to Lucilius, and Seneca gives his personal 
assessment of his own situation and the views he will bring to bear on his 
own decision when the time comes. It is clearly very important that the 


decision about death is to be taken by the individual. At the same time, it 
is important to note here that Seneca's view on suicide and the value of 
living long into old age is compatible with the general Stoic view about 
suicide. The prospect of a life containing nothing but pain is grounds for 
suicide not because of the pain itself but rather because the entire goal of 
life, 'the whole point of living', one's propositum, is impaired by such pain. 
Pain in itself should not be decisive — it is, after all, an 'indifferent' (see 
Cicero Fin. 3.51) — in one's decision. The decision to live or die is made 
in accordance with one's ability or inability to carry out the function and 
goal of a human being. 

58.37 'digress too long' (in longum exeo). Schonegg 1999: 104-5 suggests 
a double entendre: 'I am taking a long time to die' is the other suggested 
sense (exploiting two senses of exire, to go out). 

Commentary on 65 

For the relation of this letter to contemporary Platonism, see the intro- 
duction to 58 and Inwood forthcoming (2)} Once again Seneca's letter to 
Lucilius is an account of a day's intellectual activity (though this time it 
is a debate rather than an exposition by a friend). This kind of setting will 
appear again in 66. Sedley (2005, see on 58) argues that the friends in 65 
are supposed to be Platonists, since the theory is eventually illustrated by 
reference to the Timaeus (65.10). But the views of Aristotle and those of 
Plato are clearly distinguished by Seneca in 65.4-10, so perhaps it is better 
to say that the group of friends included Platonists open to integration with 
Aristotelian theory and also some who spoke for Aristotle alone. Sedley's 
consolidation of the friend of 58 and all of the friends in 65 yields an unnec- 
essarily narrow picture of the circles in which Seneca presents himself as 
moving. The faet that this is a three-way debate or case at law (triplex causa 
65.2) among Stoics, Plato, and Aristotle also suggests that Seneca wants 
to mark a difference among his friends — the atmosphere is one of debate 
rather than mere exposition. This aspect of Seneca's letter is needlessly 
deemphasized if one treats it (following Dorrie-Baltes) as being funda- 
mentally dependent on the use (by Seneca or his allegedly unique source) 
of doctrinal summaries rather than original works or actual conversation. 

2 Additional literature in this vein includes Scarpat 1970; Donini 1979: 297-8; Maurach 
1970: 132—7; Timpanaro 1979: 293—305 and response by Guida 1981: 69—81; Schonegg 
1999: 109-30. 

LETTER 65 137 

In general, we may note (following Sedley) the emphasis here and in 
58 on ascertaining the correct 'number' of something in the discussions 
of physics, although the thing counted in 58 was entities rather than 
causes. In the doxographical tradition this is common, perhaps only 
because doxographies provide summary lists as an organizational device. 
But the 'play' with numbers has a clear precedent in fourth-century 
philosophy. NB Plato's Philebus 23 ff., the role of 'divisions' in Academic 
philosophy, and Aristotle's concern with how many senses there are of 
various things. 

The metaphor of legal debate is persistent through the letter. This is 
a natural enough metaphor in any philosopher, especially a Roman one, 
and Seneca is very prone to its use. 3 Note also the use of the metaphor 
of litigation in Cicero' s De Legibus 1.53-6 (where Cicero the character 
says (1.53), 'But I would like to have been assigned as arbitrator (arbiter) 
between the Old Academy and Zeno', trans. Zetzel). Here, Lucilius is 
cast in the role of arbitrator (65.2), but is pointedly encouraged (65.10) 
not to hold out for a true verdict but one which is most like the truth 
(verisimile — this is the language of Academic scepticism in Cicero's 
formulation); he is even invited (65.15) to avoid coming to a judgement 
and to ask for further arguments. The progression is towards avoidance 
of judgement and maintenance of ongoing debate on the issue. Normally 
Seneca is impatient with programmatic scepticism (actually holding that 
nothing can be known), but here the scepticism seems procedural rather 
than dogmatic. The process of investigation seems to be the source of 
much of the benefit to the enquirer, a benefit which comes ultimately 
in the form of a view which the mind takes with regard to the body, 
a view which frees it from fear (see the helpful remarks of Maurach 
1970: 136). 

Thematic division 

1 -2: Setting the scene. A group of friends debated causation and 

left the issues unresolved. 
2-4: The Stoic position is that there is only one cause, the active 

principle = reason. 
4—6: Aristotle's four causes. 
7-10: Plato adds a fifth (and sixth) cause to Aristotle's. 
10-15: Lucilius invited to adjudicate the debate; Seneca argues the 
Stoic case again. 

3 I discuss other uses of legal metaphors in my 'Natural Law in Seneca', ch. 8 of Inwood 


15-22: Seneca defends such discussion about issues in physics. 
23-4: Application of this discussion to one's whole life. 

65.1-2 On Seneca's illness, see also 54.1. Here Seneca portrays a 
continuous progression of intensity in his activity the day before the 
letter is written. First bed rest, then reading, then writing. We are then 
told that the writing was of unusual intensity because of the difficulty 
of the material and his own determination to master it (vind nolo). The 
interruption (donec intervenerunt) comes as a climax to this process, and 
we are to think of his friends as extracting him for their debate when 
he was already at the peak of his own labours. What was Seneca writing 
about? The only clue is in 65.15, though the remark there may reflect 
general habits rather than the present event: 'I investigate myself first and 
then this cosmos'. We are perhaps to suppose that Seneca had willed his 
mind (note imperare) to address a serious question about himself, found 
himself so drawn in that an overt aet of will power was no longer needed 
(permittere).* His concentration was at its height, so that force and coercion 
were needed to impose on him the less demanding activity of philosophical 
conversation. It is not clear whether Seneca still was a 'patient' or whether 
he had recovered from his illness (note '«.« though I were an obstreperous 
patient'). The faet that Seneca reports only the controversial part of the 
conversation suggests that even on the next day Seneca is focussing on 
contentious matters (the areas of agreement and any small talk among 
friends are not reported, only the unresolved disagreements); the warning 
that the role of arbitrator will be unexpectedly demanding is another 
indication of the seriousness of the conversation. 

'obstreperous' renders the Latin intemperans. I owe the translation to 
Doug Hutchinson. 

65.2-4 The debate among Seneca's friends was about causes in nature 
as a whole (in rerum natura, de universo). Seneca expounds his own school's 
position first and presumes upon Lucilius' familiarity with it (ut scis). 
Although the explicit topic is causation and it turns out that only god is a 
cause, Seneca outlines both principles of Stoic physics. (For a suggestion 
about why, see below on 65.23-4). The two basic principles of Stoic 
physics are the active and the passive, god and matter, the cause and that 
on which it acts (LS 44, 45GH, D.L. 7.150; uhoSVF 1.86, 2.1 108). Taken 
in isolation matter (hule) is without qualities (apoios) and inert (argos); 

4 See my 'The Will in Seneca', ch. 5 of Inwood 2005. 

LETTER 65 139 

but except perhaps for the moment of cosmogenic conflagration (LS 46) 
there is no actual separation of the active and passive. The distinction 
is conceptual and serves among other things to isolate the features of 
the world which are causes from those which are acted upon. That the 
causes are 'rational' and therefore divine (identifiable ultimately with god) 
is a reflection of the Stoic commitment to the view that the world is 
an orderly and explicable system. The personal aspect of the cause (the 
active principle is god, i.e., Zeus) is reflected in the claim in 65.2 that 
matter is 'bound to remain idle if no one' (rather than nothing) acts on 
it. This turn of phrase, innocent though it seems, reveals that Seneca is 
presupposing that personal agency is the basic model for causation, even 
if he is not also assuming (in accordance with Stoic theory) that the active 
principle is Zeus. 

Curiously, after outlining this anthropocentric cosmology Seneca 
applies it explicitly (transfer) to human actions (using the statue example 
which will recur in the exposition of Aristotelian theory), and then reasserts 
the applicability of this model to the cosmos (eadem condicio rerum omnium 

65.3 For the example used here of a statue and its sculptor, compare 
Cicero Orator 8— 10, a highly Platonizing passage which Seneca may well 
have in mind as he writes. The statue is also a favourite example of 
Aristotle's in the Physics and Metaphysics. 

The idea that craft imitates nature was Aristotle's {Physics I93a28~36, 
190^15-17), but it is adopted in Stoic physics (compare also Marcus 
Aurelius 11. 10). It also appears to have been the doctrine of Plato in the 
Timaeus since the creator of nature is there portrayed as a craftsman. For 
the Stoics Nature was a 'craftsman-like fire proceeding methodically to 
genesis' 1 (D.L. 7.156, Aétius 1.7.33). 

The terms 'artisan' and 'workman' represent artifex and opifex respec- 
tively. There seems to be no important difference in sense, and both 
capture different connotations of the Greek term demiourgos which Plato 
uses in the Timaeus (for Stoic use of the Piatonic metaphor, see D.L. 7.134). 

65.4 The exposition concludes with a clear statement of the 'count': 
there is one cause, even though the exposition of the Stoic theory dwelt 
on the two elements of Stoic cosmology more than on the simple question 
about numbers of causes. 

In the account of Aristotle's views the words 'he says' could indicate 
either Aristotle himself or the anonymous spokesman. 


65.4-6 The move from three causes ('cause is said in three ways') 
to four ('a fourth cause accompanies these') is curious. The simple 
explanation is (as so often) Seneca's adoption of a deliberate casualness 
to create an epistolary atmosphere. But it is also possible that the fourth 
cause is one which 'Aristotle' did not want to say was normally cailed 
a cause; that is, Seneca may be portraying Aristotle as distinguishing a 
more general usage of the term 'cause' from his own special sense (the 
'final' cause or propositum), the one which he himself contributed to the 
philosophical repertoire. On this question, see Guida (1981: 69-78), who 
regards Seneca's move here as a device for emphasizing the added item and 
drawing attention to its distinctive Aristotelian character. Guida (1981: 
77) claims that the final cause is marked out as Aristotle's contribution in 
the same way that the paradigmatic form (idea) is signalled as distinctively 
Piatonic in 65.7. Cf Sedley 2005: 136 n. 49. 

For the phrasing ('is said in three ways') cf. 58.8. 

65.4 'form' here translates idos (eidos in the more familiar transliteration). 
As in 58.18-21 idos is used in contrast to idea to represent an immanent 
form in contrast to a transcendent or separate form (cf. Dorrie-Baltes, 
vol. 4, 416); in 58.20 the term is attributed to Piatonic not Aristotelian 
usage. In both letters idos picks out the form which is imposed on 
the matter by an artisan, not the model to which an artisan looks as 
he works. The 'model' {idea) is introduced in 65.7 as an addition to 
Aristotle's theory made by Plato. Hankinson (1988: 337) refers to this as 
'cheerful anachronism'. The order of presentation is, however, scarcely 
meant to be historical. Rather, since Plato is presented as believing in a 
superset of Aristotle's causes it is merely convenient to portray him as 
adding an additional cause. Seneca draws attention to the distinctively 
Aristotelian flavour of the final cause even though he treats it as also 
being thoroughly Piatonic. Here as in 58.18 Plato's doctrines are alleged 
to include Aristotle's. Aristotle, who thought of his final cause as his own 
contribution not fully anticipated by anyone, including Plato, would not 
perhaps have been pleased at being subsumed in this way. 

In this letter Seneca does not apologize for the use of Greek terms such 
as idos and idea (as well as the names of the statues: doryphorus, diadumenos, 
which would no doubt be familiar to his audience of aristocrats, many 
of whom no doubt collected statues). We are to suppose that Lucilius 
remembers the handling of the issue in 58; Cicero did not apologize for 
using idea and doryphorus in Orator 5 and 10. The matter-of-fact use 
of Greek terms here is not Seneca's normal practice; see 'Seneca in his 

LETTER 65 141 

Philosophical Milieu', ch. 1 of Inwood 2005, and note also on 120.4 w i tn 
regard to analogia. 

65.4-6 Note the prominence of causes understood as necessary condi- 
tions {id sine quo) in this section. In 65.5 this is a feature of the first three 
causes; at the end of 66.6 it is explicitly stated to be a feature of the fourth. 
This emphasis on necessary conditions is reminiscent of the theory which 
is rejected in Phaedo (one of Seneca's favourite Piatonic dialogues) and 
this way of understanding causes sets the theory up for refutation below 
(65.11-12). The theory which holds that one kind of cause is a necessary 
condition for an event or object is treated as unobjectionable in 65.6, so 
the reasons for rejecting it below are both revealing and important. (On 
the absence of Phaedo from Seneca's overt discussion of causes, see Sedley 
2005: n. 48. On the prominence of themes from that dialogue in the second 
half of this letter, see below.) 

65.5 'spear-carrier or boy tying up his hair'. These are two famous 
statues by Polyclitus. In Orator 8-10 Cicero discusses the effect on artistic 
ambition of having to work in the aftermath of a genius. Thus Aristotle 
is not deterred from writing philosophy by Plato's example nor does the 
'spear-carrier' deter later sculptors. Cicero also uses the example of statues 
(especially those of Phidias) in connection with this point; it is hard to 
doubt that Seneca has in mind here this well-known Ciceronian passage 
with its celebration of Piatonic 'idealism,' i.e., his theory of separate forms. 
Aristotle's causes are not directly linked to a cosmic theory, as are the 
Stoic and Piatonic theories; this is merely an account of ordinary causation. 
Since Aristotle held that the cosmos is eternal he gave no causal account 
of its origin. On the creationist reading of the Timaeus Plato did so; so too 
did the Stoics, for whose account of how the active principle (god) and 
passive principle (matter) interacted to produce the organized world see, 
e.g., D.L. 7.134-6, 7.142 (=LS 44B and 46BC). 

65.7 Plato's fifth cause is represented as an addition to Aristotle's, 
underlining their alleged fundamental similarities. (See Donini 1979: 
156.) The idea (described also in 58.18 as Plato's distinctive contribution) 
is the exemplar towards which a craftsman looks in producing something 
(for which cf. 58.21 and Cicero, Orator 9). 

Seneca here makes the important claim that it is irrelevant to the 
function of the exemplar as a model whether one looks at a distinct object 
and imposes its shape on the matter or whether one has the model in 



one's mind. When the mental model is described as something 'which 
he himself conceived of and posited' the philosophical issues raised (but 
not settled) become even more important. A human artisan may have 
either an external model (the living person of whom the statue is being 
made) or a mental model. The Demiurge in the Timaeus is portrayed 
as having an external model, the separately existing Forms. But in the 
course of the Piatonic tradition the Forms came to be regarded by some as 
'ideas' in the mind of god (see John Dillon 1996: 158-9, 254-5, 4 10 ); the 
implication of that view is that there are no mind-independent entities, 
since even the Forms are contained by god's mind. Seneca allows for 
the mind-dependence of the artisan's model in part because it is in faet 
the case that artisans can concoct mental models for their creative work 
without there being a real object to imitate. (See on 120.4.) His emphasis 
on the mind-dependence of the artisan's models paves the way for treating 
Plato's Forms as god's ideas, as entities dependent on the mind of the 
Demiurge in the same way that a model can be dependent on the human 
mind. On this topic, see also Inwood forthcoming (2). 

But it is unsatisfactory to leave the issue undeveloped, as Seneca does 
here. Ideas conceived of and posited by human minds are nevertheless 
dependent on the existence of and familiarity with real external objects 
(for example, the concept of a centaur depends on our familiarity with real 
horses and real humans). But if the Forms are ideas in god's mind, should 
there not be some analogous independent objects to which god looks when 
he 'conceives of and 'posits' his ideas? 

For convenience, I reproduce here Sedley's summary of the full five- 
cause theory as attributed to Plato (see Sedley 2005: 136). Sedley's table 
draws on the text from 65.4-8. Compare Timaeus 28a- 30a. 

Type of cause 

name 5 


statue example 

Plato, Timaeus 

1. material 

id ex quo 



2. efficient 

id a quo 



3. formal 

id in quo 


e.g. doryphoros 

world order 

4. final 

id propter quod 

e.g. cash, glory, reli- 
gious devotion 

goodness {Tim. 

5. paradig- 

id ad quod 


[artist's model] 


LETTER 65 143 

The introduction of the mind of god in 65.7 brings with it a commitment 
to the cosmic level of causation present in the Stoic theory but absent from 
the simpler Aristotelian account. God's mind contains all the exemplars 
of things to be created and also some moral standards to which one 

The word 'aspects' translates numeros, literally 'numbers'. Compare 
71.16. For the term see Cicero, De Finibus 3.24=LS 64H and Stobaeus, 
Ecl. 2.93 = LS 59K. In both passages a virtuous action is described as 
one which has all the 'numbers'. In Cicero the claim is that a morally 
right action {recte factum = katorthoma) has all the 'numbers' of virtue. In 
Stobaeus the claim is that a katorthoma is an appropriate action (kathekon) 
which has 'all the numbers' or is a 'perfect appropriate action'. For 
discussion see 'The harmonics of Stoic virtue', ch. 9 (esp. p. 211) of 
Long 1996. The term is also employed in the 'Antiochean' critique of 
the Stoic view that all wrong actions are equal at Fin. 4.56 {quasi numeros 
officii — the apologetic quasi marks Cicero's self-consciousness about the 
borrowing and/or the metaphor). It is noteworthy that this text of Seneca 
is seldom mentioned in discussions of the topic. No doubt it should 
be, for the 'aspects' or numbers here are 'of every thing which is to be 
done' (numeros universorum quae agenda sunt). The mention of agenda 
recalls the ordo et concordia rerum agendarum in Cicero's account of how 
one learns to be good (Fin. 3.21); compare below on 120. 11. Dorrie- 
Baltes (vol. 4: 418), however, hold that the 'numbers' here guarantee a 
reference to Timaeus 53b and interpret 'modes' (modi) as a translation of 
metra (not mentioned at that point in the Timaeus). It is certain that the 
Timaeus is in Seneca's mind here, but Dorrie-Baltes's determination to 
see Seneca's text exclusively in the context of systematic middle-Platonic 
doctrine and as focussed on the Timaeus narrows their interpretive options 

5 For the question of the prepositional labels for the causes, see my discussion in Inwood 
forthcoming (2), esp. the text at nn. 30-1. 

6 'Aristotle' is in quotation marks here because the full statue example nowhere occurs 
in his works, although it is used by Alexander, De Fato 167.2— 12, and Clem. Al. Strom. 
VIII 9.26.2—3. See Todd 1976: 319-22. There is also, of course, good reason to doubt 
that the examples given of an Aristotelian final cause are, or could be made, acceptable to 


So when Seneca here attributes to Plato the view that god has in his 
mind not only the exemplary forms to which he will look in creating the 
world but also the 'aspects and modes of every thing which is to be done' 
it is tempting to suppose that this is a periphrasis for the Forms of moral 
virtues. Although this letter deals primarily with themes from physics, it 
is worth noticing that the Forms of virtue are just as much in god's mind 
as they are in the mind of the sage. 

It is also worth noting that the form of 'human' is chosen to exemplify 
the contrast of permanent forms and transient particulars (for which 
compare 58.22-4). This suggests a Platonist tradition about the third 
man argument based, of course, on an argument in Plato's Parmenides but 
developed most fully in Aristotle's On Forms, esp. fr. 186 R. 

65.8 The five-cause theory is labelled with the prepositional catalogue so 
familiar from doxographical or scholastic texts (see Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4: 
419 for the Piatonic evidence, but see also S. E. M. 10.10) and illustrated 
with the statue example that runs through all three theories. A sixth cause 
is added (novissime) in 65.8: the product of the other causes. This baffling 
suggestion is summarily dismissed at the end of 65.14. Sedley 2005: n. 
49 considers reasons why it may have been included here by Seneca and 
suggests that this is meant to be the sufficient condition (the others are 
merely necessary conditions). But this is unconvincing and it may be more 
economical and truer to Seneca's literary character to suppose that he adds 
the sixth cause in a virtually satirical spirit to underpin the resounding 
conclusion of his refutation in 65.14. But see below ad loc. 

65.9-10 The causal theory is applied to the world, with the Timaeus 
as the main reference. Note that the 'purpose', which is presented as an 
Aristotelian contribution to the inclusive Piatonic theory, plays the critical 
role of providing the Demiurge's motivation (his propositum is 'goodness'; 
cf. Timaeus 29de). On god's natural goodness, see, e.g., 95.36. Compare 
also Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4: 420-1 and Schonegg 1999: 113. 

Sedley 2005: 135-6 notes that all five causes are to be thought of as 
being implicit in the Timaeus but wonders (n. 48) at the absence of the 
Phaedo from Seneca's thoughts here. Given the importance of the Phaedo 
in the latter half of the letter, it is worth suggesting that the immanent 
cause attributed here to Aristotle (the idos) may be regarded as part of the 
legacy of the Phaedo. 

Given the way the Piatonic theory subsumes Aristotle's and Aristotle's 
avoids the cosmic level on which the Stoic theory works, it is natural 

LETTER 65 145 

to agree with Sedley 2005 and others that the Piatonic and Aristotelian 
theories are meant to function as a single unit. The only incompatibility 
between the theories is Aristotle's omission of the exemplar as a cause (that 
is, the difference between the form imposed and the separate form to which 
the artisan looks in creating his work). Hence, when in 65.10 Lucilius is 
challenged to be a judge and decide on the 'three-part' case before him, 
his choice is among three theories, but they are not equally distinct from 
each other. The choice whether to include a transcendent formal exemplar 
might well matter to a Peripatetic (a point which Sedley downplays), 
but from a Stoic point of view there is really only one comprehensive 
alternative theory to refute. Hence in the refutation 65.11 -14 there is no 
distinction between the Peripatetics and Platonists. 

65.10 We should note the Ciceronian Academic flavour of the way the 
question is put to Lucilius here. This fits well with the legal language 
about coming to a verdict and with the Timaean associations of the eikos 
muthos. In his translation of the Timaeus, however, Cicero renders the 
'likelihood' with the term probabile rather than the term veri sitnile used 
by Seneca in this letter and normally by Cicero, whether his intent is 
to invoke Academic scepticism or the notion of plausibility (eikos) of the 
rhetorical tradition. 

65.11 The Stoic critique treats the Piatonic and Aristotelian theories as 
one: they are jointly responsible for the 'swarm of causes' (turba causarum). 
The Stoic counter-argument is dilemmatic in form. If by 'cause' they mean 
primarily the necessary condition (that which if it is removed eliminates 
the effect or that which if it had not been present the effect would not 
now be present), then several other things should count as causes (time, 
place, motion) and the opponents have not named enough causes. On the 
other hånd, there is a strong intuition articulated by the Stoics (and also in 
Hippias Major 297a) that the cause is some one thing that acts to produce 
an effect, and by that standard the opponents have produced too many 
causes. (For 65.11-14 see Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4: 432-5.) 

For basic texts on the Stoic theory of causation, see LS 55A-I with 
commentary and Frede 1980, 'The Original Notion of Cause'. It is clear 
that behind their basic notion of cause as something because of which and 
through whose activity something else occurs, the Stoics also developed 
a rich and complex theory of causal factors which left them open to the 
rejoinder that they too posited too many causes. But here Seneca focusses 
on the central Stoic insight about causation (that a single active cause does 


the work) and applies it primarily to causation at the cosmological level. 
This sharpens the contrast with Peripatetic and Platonist theories. 

There is an irony in Seneca's use of the 'swarm' criticism against 
the Peripatetics and Platonists. For Alexander of Aphrodisias directs the 
same kind of attack against the Stoics (snienos aittbn at 192.18 of De 
Fato). Similarly in his Metaphysics commentary 524.31 Alexander uses 
the phrase 'a swarm of substances' (snienos ousion). The tradition whereby 
one rejects one's opponent's uneconomical theory for invoking a 'swarm' 
stems ultimately from the Meno, where Socrates objects to Meno's 'swarm 
of virtues' {snienos . . . areton 72a). (The dismissively comic overtones of the 
word are apparent also at Cratylus 401c) Plutarch alludes to the passage at 
De recta ratione 42c and at De amkorum multitudine 93b, and uses it against 
Chrysippus at De virtute morali 441b and at Comnt. Not. 1084b. The term 
was part of the repertoire of inter-school debate at least by the time of 
Seneca and for long after. The point of its use is consistent: the opponent's 
theory is criticized serio-comically for its generation of too many entities. 
Seneca will criticize his own school for such ontological excess in 113. 

In Phaedo ggab it is stipulated that a necessary condition is not properly 
speaking a cause; this Piatonic idea could be in Seneca's mind here — it 
would be apt for him to use a Piatonic argument against Platonists — but 
there is no explicit invocation of those considerations. 

65.12 is meant to block the obvious rejoinder to the criticism that the 
opponents' theory omits other necessary conditions which have the same 
claim to be considered 'causes' as do the ones they cite. This rejoinder 
would consist in accepting the criticism and correcting the mistake by 
positing an even bigger crowd of causes. Regrettably Seneca's reply looks 
at first sight like simple counter-assertion ('but what we are now looking 
for is a primary and general cause'; see too 65.14) — unless the preference 
for simplicity is somehow built in to the terms of the discussion. Worse, 
it is not completely clear whether the 'we' here is meant to be the Stoics 
or Seneca and his friends. One hopes the latter, to avoid the imputation 
of question-begging. As readers, then, we need to ask how we are to 
suppose that these friends framed their question in the first place. Did 
they ask, 'What is the cause of the natural order (cf. rerum natura 65.2)?' 
If so, then this move is not so much mere counter-assertion as a reminder 
of the point under debate; but even so Seneca's reply on behalf of the 
Stoics does not set out good reasons for privileging the Stoic analysis. 
The most charitable assumption would be that just as 58 showed the 
Platonists in pursuit of a high-level general principle ('what is') we are to 

LETTER 65 147 

suppose that they and the Peripatetics also have a commitment to finding 
a high-level and general (and therefore simple) account of causation. But 
that is not made explicit in 65 itself. Donini (1979: 157-8) takes Seneca's 
announced preference for a 'primary and general cause' as a privileging 
of the Stoic unitary world-view over the pluralistic and hierarchical view 
of the Platonists. However, Seneca as author does not tell us how the 
question was put, though of course he could easily have done so; nor does 
Seneca as correspondent inform Lucilius on this point, though Lucilius is 
nevertheless asked to adjudicate the dispute. If the main point of the letter 
is to settle a dispute about causation this hardly seems fair to Lucilius or 
to the reader. 

65.13-14 The dialectical strategy here is one of elimination by sub- 
sumption. Each of the causes mentioned by the other side is reasonable 
but dependent on the central cause (a part of it, an instrument of it, 
or — in the case of the propositum — a 'subsequent' cause). The meaning 
of 'subsequent' (superveniens) is hard to determine. (Dorrie-Baltes, vol. 4: 
434 say that at this point Seneca's meaning becomes 'dark' and confess to 
being defeated by the text.) The term may mean 'temporally following' 
or 'supplementary'; it is contrasted pointedly here to 'efficient' which 
suggests that it is a redundant or superfluous factor. Compare the sense 
given to epigennematikon by Cicero at Fin. 3.32. 

The interpretation of this section should be controlled by an acknowl- 
edgement of its obvious negative aim — and this is especially important 
for the last point in 65.14 (the rejection of the sixth cause from 65.8), 
which is very difficult to interpret. The main difficulty is to know what 
to make of the sixth cause (see above for some preliminary remarks). On 
a reading charitable to Seneca, one might suppose that by this point the 
final cause is not what it was earlier in the letter (the 'intent' of a craft-like 
activity by a conscious agent, such as god) but a more properly Aristotelian 
final cause, the fully achieved finished product as a good or goal. This 
might represent an Aristotelian reading of final cause as applied to the 
Timaeus. If so, then it is in faet identifiable with the effect — the final cause 
just is the finished product of the causal process. The objection made by 
Seneca, then, is reasonable but highly polemical. If we follow Sedley's 
interpretation (2005: 136-7, n. 49) instead, that the sixth cause is 'the 
conjunction of all the necessary conditions' and so 'also to be regarded as a 
cause, indeed the cause' then we can see this as an effort by the Platonists 
to isolate what Seneca asks for — a single general cause; i.e., the causa 
generalis asked for in 65.14 was being anticipated by the Platonists in 65.8.) 


On either interpretation (the sixth cause is a proper final cause and 
Seneca then criticizes it for being identical with the effect; or the sixth 
cause is the conjunction of all necessary conditions and so amounts to a 
single general cause) the Aristotelian-Platonic theory is vulnerable from 
the Stoic perspective. 

65.14 'countless'. Cf 58.18. 

65.15 The dialectical moves of 65.12-14 are followed by the dichoto- 
mous instruction to Lucilius: either decide among the competing theories 
of causation or ask for renewed argument on the grounds that the issue 
is unclear. Lucilius' imagined response to this is a brusque challenge 
to Seneca to justify the time spent on natural philosophy, referred to 
contemptuously as 'those issues' (ista). 

This (with Seneca's reply) forms the 'pull-away' or detachment from 
the subject-matter of the reported discussion and the transition to the 
concluding discussion of the benefit of studying physics. Cf. e.g., 48.5, 
48.9, 58.25. 121. 1: 'What does this have to do with ethics?' is the 
culmination of such rhetorical questions. 

But Seneca's instructions to Lucilius are puzzling. Why does Seneca 
not press his advantage and urge Lucilius to side with the Stoics? The 
refutation is, after all, virtually complete and there is no apparent reason 
why he should regard the issue as undecidable. To answer this, we need 
to consider a larger question about the rhetorical strategy of the letter, 
in particular why Seneca becomes so indifferent to the way the debate is 
resolved. I see two possibilities. (1) If (as the sequel suggests, see below) 
it is because the process of debate in natural philosophy (rather than its 
content) is the real source of benefit, then it makes sense for him to draw 
us in, leave it hanging, and then get out of the discussion to dwell on the 
benefits of such enquiry. 

Another possibility (2) is that the reader is supposed to notice that 
Seneca's interest in the topic of his friends' discussion has waned by this 
point, that he is tired of discussing it and wishes to disengage in order to 
return to reflection on his own interests, the ones he was writing about 
before the interruption which was the occasion of this letter. Perhaps 
Seneca's philosophical intensity peaked with the personal writing he was 
doing as he was interrupted. This intense engagement then sustained 
itself as he began to discuss causation with his friends, so that he stayed 
aggressive at the start of the debate he narrates. As the debate continued, 

LETTER 65 149 

though, we are to recognize that Seneca's interest in the issue fades rapidly 
until at 65.15 he simply loses interest. 

Maurach (1970: 133) describes the invitation to Lucilius to decide as a 
'friendly fiction', though it is scarcely a friendly aet to take the right to 
adjudicate which he has given to Lucilius 'right out of his mouth' and 
Maurach is driven to regarding the invitation to judge at 65.15 as a mere 
trope ('eine Floskel'). 

65.15 'I investigate myself first' may be designed (a) to indicate what 
Seneca was working on when his friends interrupted or (b) it may be 
no more than an indication of his general practice when dealing with 
philosophical matters. Interpretation (a) coheres well with possibility 
(2) above and (b) with possibility (1). 

The interpretation of this section and of the nature of the 'pull-away' 
turns partly on the correct reading for the corrupt word peiora. My 
translation assumes Hense's emendation potiora 'more important issues'. 
I. Hadot (1969: 115, n. 82), however, argues for retention of peiora. 

'more important issues, ones which soothe the mind'. The phrasing 
leaves it an open question whether the importance of these issues consists 
in their soothing the mind or whether their capacity to soothe the mind is 
an attribute distinct from their importance on other grounds. 

65.16 'now' (nunc) probably means 'now at the time of writing the letter', 
despite the absence of the epistolary imperfect. But it may also mean 'when 
I am discussing things like this', i.e., physics more generally. 

'chopped up and dispersed'. Seneca's claim is that the general topics 
of cosmology are rewarding but that excessive analysis and self-indulgent 
debate about details of theory undermine the usefulness of the topic. It 
is easy to grant that from Seneca's point of view the differences between 
the Aristotelian and the Platonist views on causation constitute needless 
technicality (subtilitas). But it is not quite so clear that the choice between 
the inclusive Platonist theory and the Stoic theory is pointlessly technical. 
If, however, Seneca thinks that the central cosmological doctrines of 
Timaean Platonism and of Stoic cosmology are convergent in their 
content and in their significance for decisions about how to live a good 
life, then the view advanced here is not so unreasonable. And there 
are many similarities of just the right sort. Both cosmologies rest upon 
the creative activities of a rational and beneficent god who acts in a 
craftsmanlike way but is constrained by the nature and limitations of 
the matter with which he works. In Stoicism and Platonism the godlike 


character of human rationality is highly relevant to our prospects for virtue 
and happiness. And both theories are dependent on a form of body-soul 
dualism, although the underlying metaphysical commitments may be very 
different. (See Inwood 2005: 33-5 and nn. 18-19. Note, however, Donini 
(1979: 158) who maintains that Seneca is committed to a much more 
dualistic metaphysical system than earlier Stoics.) 

The urgency of conducting physics properly is rooted in the needs of 
our mind to be released and liberated, something which serious discussion 
of physics can do. The need for liberation lies in a conception of human 
mental life not unlike that of the Phaedo. 

The body is conceived of as a burden, a weight, a punishment, as chains. 
Furthermore the mind is portrayed as being alienated from its proper 
context and wishing to return to something it used to be part of. This 
strong affiliation with the Phaedo does not, of course, commit Seneca to the 
notion of an incorporeal soul. Stoic physics recognizes the physical nature 
of the soul while acknowledging its fundamental difference from the body 
and its potential to outlast the body (see the range of evidence collected at 
SVF 2.809-22, esp. D.L. 7. 157, Aétius 4. 7. 3, Arius Didymus fr. 39 Diels 
at Doxographi Graeci, p. 471). If Tacitus' account of Seneca's own death 
by suicide is to be trusted, we might conclude that his commitment to a 
Stoic version of the psychology of the Phaedo was sincere and decisive, 
for in that account Seneca's behaviour and words are modelled closely 
on those of Socrates. Elsewhere in his philosophical works Seneca takes a 
similarly 'Piatonic' view of the benefit to be had from the proper conduct 
of physics, that cosmic speculation is a consolation and diversion from the 
body's burdens. Tacitus' narrative would (if reliable) provide us with a 
precious indication of the life and commitments behind Seneca's authorial 
mask, but it is just as likely that his narrative reflects an established genre 
of philosophical death narratives modelled on the Phaedo as that it reflects 
a trend for philosophers to emulate Socrates in their deaths. 

The word libertas ('freedom') could also be rendered 'liberation'. The 
emphasis could be on either the state of freedom attained by philosophy 
or the process of becoming free. The word 'escape' translates evagatio, 
but the connotations of the term are not certain. Other possibilities are 
'diversion', 'flight', 'roaming'. 

Donini (1979: 186-7) argues that the conjunction of the theme of 
liberty with the Platonist physics here commits Seneca to a conception 
of philosophy which is fundamentally at odds with Stoicism. This seems 
an exaggerated conclusion, produced in part by the conviction that 
the Piatonic influence on Seneca comes exclusively from contemporary 

LETTER 65 151 

scholastic middle Platonism. (One of Donini's main themes in this work 
is the choice Seneca faced between a Platonist and a Stoic 'image' of 
the world and philosophy.) If, as we might prefer to think, the influence 
comes in part from Seneca's own reflection on the dialogues of Plato, then 
the choice Seneca faces is less stark and the alleged departure from Stoic 
orthodoxy is less significant. (Bickel 1960: 18-20 can see nothing in this 
section except 'a moral diatribe against the human body', which seems to 
me to be a needlessly unnuanced assessment.) 

Comparable themes can be found in less markedly Piatonic works of 
Seneca. See, e.g., 24.17, 31. 11, 66.12, 78.10, 92.33, De Otio 5, Cons. Helv. 
11 esp. 6-7, Cons. Marc. 24.5. 

65.17 This analogy between the mind's need for recreation and that felt 
by certain kinds of artisans effectively illustrates the cramped experience 
of the mind trapped in the body. It also echoes the earlier and more 
technical discussion in two ways. The example of the artisan picks up 
the role of artisans in the causal discussion and the description of the 
subject-matter of physics as rerum natura here (and in 65.16) harks back 
to 65.2. Compare also 58.25, Tranq. An. 17.8, NQ_ 1 pref. 

65.18 Phaedo 62b describes the lot of human beings as like being in a 
phroura or guard station. Seneca (like many others) clearly interprets this 
as being on duty in the guard station rather than as being in a prison. Hence 
the wise person is here compared to a soldier on a tour of duty (for which 
cf 51.6 and 120.12), with the same obligation to stay at his post (i.e., to stay 
alive) until released from duty by his superiors (the gods in the Phaedo). 

The density of the allusions to the Phaedo is striking in the latter half 
of this letter. Above and beyond Seneca's deep commitment to some 
form of body-soul dualism and the idea that an appropriate grasp of 
natural philosophy has salvific force in human life, the dialogue is also 
significant because it engages explicitly and at some length with the main 
philosophical theme of this letter, causation. As Cicero paid homage to 
Plato's Phaedrus in the De Oratore even while taking a different view on its 
central theme (the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy), so here 
Seneca makes it clear that his discussion of physics, causation, and the 
significance of life and death is replying to the Phaedo without necessarily 
committing himself to its doctrines. 

'higher things await him' (ampliora superesse) need not refer to an 
afterlife nor (contra Donini 1979: 190, cited with approval by Sedley 2005: 
138, n. 52) need it be incompatible with a Stoic understanding of human 


life. The contrast between mortal life and higher things can be contained in 
one's life — just as one need not die to athanatizein (EN 1 I77b33). Donini 
(1979: 186-92) takes Seneca to be articulating an essentially un-Stoic 
view of theoretical philosophy as a model for life. On the contrary, Seneca 
makes it clear that the reward for theoretical activity is the adoption 
of a correct understanding of the relationship between mind and body 
(65.21) which makes possible an appropriately Stoic freedom of choice 
(see 'Freedom and Autonomy', ch. 1 1 of Inwood 2005). Donini interprets 
the references to 'freedom' here as indications of a purely theoretical view 
of human fulfilment, and when Seneca draws out the practical rewards of 
cosmological speculation in 65.21-2 he sees this as a shift back to a Stoic 
theme from the middle Piatonic commitments of 65.16-20. There is no 
need to posit such a discontinuity in Seneca's exposition. Donini's highly 
Platonist reading of 65.16-20 is supported largely with parallels from the 
Didaskalikos and Aspasius' commentary on the EN (and supported by a 
biographically reductive speculation on pp. 197, 199). But such parallels 
are of doubtful weight and the letter read in its own right does not require 
such a disunified reading (for Donini 1979: 195, 65 is an embarrassingly 
disunified letter, one of the least unified texts in the corpus of Seneca). 

'best part of himself'. Cf 71.32, 78.10, NQ_ 1 pref. 14, 4a pref. 20., 
Const. Sap. 6.3. At De Finibus 4.26-8 the Stoics are criticized for treating 
humans as being nothing but their minds. Cf. Cicero, Rep. 6.26 where the 
identity of a person with his or her mind (and god) is asserted bluntly by 

65.19-22 Seneca reverts sharply to the objection he imagined coming 
from Lucilius at 65.15 and responds to it with a series of pointed rhetorical 
questions, the presupposition of which is that Lucilius has intended 
to dissuade him from all study of physics and not just from abusive 
over-indulgence in technicalities. Seneca's purpose here is to provide a 
dramatic illustration of and argument for the Utility of physics which 
will address the concerns of someone (like Lucilius) who believes that all 
study of physics is useless. That view of physics is not, of course, new 
in Seneca's day; it is the explicit teaching of Aristo of Chios, a student 
of Zeno of Citium. Aristo's views are always taken seriously by Seneca, 
and rightly so. For he had considerable independence and philosophical 
power and seems to have preserved a strand of Cynic teaching within the 
framework of the Stoic school. In Seneca's own day Cynicism was much in 
vogue, which may help to explain his interest in a long-dead philosopher 

LETTER 65 153 

whose views did not become dominant in the school. Explicit references 
to Aristo are found at 36.6, 89.13, 94 passim, 115. 8. 

65.18-19, especially 65.19 are very like the themes in the preface of 
NQ_ 1, another extensive apologia for the conduct of physics. (Compare 
also De Otio 5.) Many of the cosmological themes considered for physical 
enquiry are similar (though NQ_ has a much more extensive account), but 
see in particular the climax at NQ_ 1 pref. 17: 'investigating these things, 
learning them, dwelling on them — is this not what it means to transcend 
mortality and to be transferred to a better lot? You say, what good will 
those things [ista] do you? If nothing else, at least this: I shall know that 
all things are small when you measure them against god.' As here in 65 
we see the challenge of the supposed interlocutor ('you say') rebutted by 
a vigorous assertion of the benefit of doing physics. In NQ it is somewhat 
clearer that the moral benefit adduced represents a minimal claim about 
the Utility of physics, not the entire case. When Seneca says 'if nothing 
else, at least this' we should take him at his word and assume that when 
not arguing against an Aristonian denial of any Utility to physics he might 
make even larger claims. 

65.20-1 Note the theme of slavery to one's own body developed here, 
which emphasizes the claim that reflection on our mind's association with 
the divine is a form of liberation. The affinity of the human mind with 
god is a claim made in particularly strong form by Stoics, who hold that 
there is no qualitative difference between the mind of a sage and that 
of Zeus. As the Stoic god is a cosmogonic force, so too is the creator 
god of Plato's Timaeus, the Demiurge. Seneca is suggesting here another 
strong connection between physics and human fulfilment. The connection 
between the theme of human/god similarity and cosmology is another 
unifying theme of this superficially disunified letter. 

For the treatment of reincarnation as an open question compare 
108. 19-21. 

'laws of human servitude'. Cf Cons. Polyb. 9.8, Cons. Marc. 24-25, 
Cicero, Rep. 6.14, NQ_ 1 pref. 11- 12. 

65.21 'born for greater things'. Compare 65.16, the mind wants to 
'return to the things it used to be part of and 120.15 'it is the most 
powerful proof that a mind comes from some loftier place if it judges these 
things that it deals with to be base and narrow, if it is not afraid to take its 


leave . . . the mind which remembers where it came from knows where it is 
going to go. ' Also NQ_ i pref. 1 1 - 1 2 and De Otio 5 . In Stoicism the human 
mind is composed of pneuma in a certain tension. On some versions of 
Stoic physics, so is god. God is, of course, the ultimate origin of the entire 
cosmos. Hence it is not at all difficult to interpret claims such as this (and 
41. 1 on the god within) in a Stoic manner; of course it is also easy to take 
them in a Piatonic manner, or at least in a manner compatible with some 
Piatonic dialogues and some Platonist treatises. But that is no reason to 
see such passages as evidence of un-Stoic commitments by Seneca. 

65.21 Seneca here displays a peculiarly mixed attitude to the body. It is 
a bond, but it is also a protection for one's liberty against fortune. This 
view of how we live in the body and use it as a buffer zone for human 
freedom seems to be original. Seneca's view is that since the mind and 
the body are distinct, what happens to the body is not a misfortune for 
the mind (which is the genuine person). Hence accepting 'wounds' in 
the body can and should be viewed as a protection for the person, i.e., 
the mind, though seeing this, requires that we accept that 'harm' done to 
the body is not harm to the person. The body, so easily seen as the source 
of our vulnerability, as our hostage to fortune, becomes our shield against 
it when we adopt the correct view about its value and its relation to the 
mind. For the criticism of Stoics as holding in effect that the person is 
only the mind and not also the body, see Cicero, Fin. 4.26-8 and above 
on 65.18. 

65.22 Since the body is distinct from the mind and not of ultimate value, 
the mind will never make otherwise bad decisions out of deference to 
it. For example, it will never believe that impending harm to the body 
is bad (a source of the emotion fear) and will never stoop to forms of 
inauthenticity (such as pretence and lying). The distinctness of mind 
from body also facilitates the dissolution of their partnership. The legal 
and financial metaphor here (a commercial partnership) carries the strong 
implication that the association between mind and body is inessential, 
driven by temporary community of interest, and easily revocable. The 
asymmetry in authority for deciding to end the partnership is vital to 
Seneca's understanding of the relationship of mind to body. (See I. Hadot 
1969: 101, n. 18.) Their union and shared fate is expressed by the idea of 
a partnership; the independence of the mind is expressed by the assertion 
of its unfettered right to dissolve the partnership at will ('when I see fit'). 
Seneca here takes some basic ideas of the Phaedo further than Plato did, 

LETTER 66 155 

expressing them with original metaphors which have implications that are 
simultaneously more extreme and more insightful. 

65.23-4 Seneca returns to the cosmological theme and outlines the 
relevance of the content of the Stoic doctrine (rather than the mere process 
of doing cosmological speculation) to a view about human happiness. 
Despite the willingness of Seneca in the middle of this letter to urge 
suspension of judgement about the content of the doctrines, in the end he 
claims that the kind of detachment of mind from body required by true 
freedom actually requires specifically Stoic views: the dualism of god and 
matter is parallel to the dualism of mind and body. 

Above (65.2-4) it was noted that Seneca focussed on the basic dualism 
of the Stoic principles (god and matter) even though the discussion 
was about causation and only 'god' counted as a cause. Here we see 
why. The conclusion of the letter requires a clear commitment to the 
dualism of god and matter, since it is that dualism which constitutes 
the crucial parallel to mind and body (god: matter :: mind: body). 
The former are guides and leaders for and superior to the latter. Yet 
both the former and the latter are needed to form single entities. This 
is a kind of dualism that falls short of being substance dualism — an 
important refmement on Platonism. The value polarity between humans 
and nature (superior/inferior) is found explicitly in Aristotle, who also 
avoids substance dualism. 

This view is perhaps isomorphic with Piatonic dualism; but it is 
a different dualism. The contrast of Stoicism to other schools within 
this letter (and in 58) underscores the importance to Seneca of Stoic 
affiliations. Nevertheless the letter closes with an allusion to Plato's 
Apology of Socrates, just as 58 opened with it. I. Hadot (1969: 83, 91) 
argues that this exploitation of the Apology does not indicate a weakening 
of Seneca's Stoic commitments. This is surely correct, but the long 
shadow of Plato's Socratic dialogues cannot help but influence our view 
of Seneca's place in the history of ancient thought. 

Commentary on 66 

Thematic division 



Claranus introduced. The setting of the discussion. 

The question posed. How can it be that all goods are equal? 

The nature of the good (i.e., the virtuous mind). 


Challenge to the uniform nature of virtuous dispositions, 
and the rejoinder. 

Anticipated counterexample from common sense and the 
rejoinder based on our moral intuitions. 
Return to a broadly conceptual argument for the equality 
of goods. 

Judgements about the good. 

The role of reason (rather than the senses) in determining 
36-7: The rational basis for distinctions among goods (the role of 
the natural). 

The relationship of the good and the natural. 
Comparison to Epicurean doctrine. 

Why unfavourable circumstances might be preferred — an 
extravagant finale. 













The dramatic setting for this letter is reminiscent of 65. The intro- 
duction to 65 and to 58 provide some comment on Seneca's relationship 
to contemporary Platonism and other philosophical schools. Particularly 
relevant background can be found in LS 60-1 and relevant discussion in 
Maurach 1970: 137-45. See also Eden 1986: 142-8. 

66.1-4 Claranus appears only here in the corpus (for a speculation 
as to his identity see the Bude edition ad loc). Seneca's characters are 
normally real, though underdocumented. We need to imagine the implicit 
setting Seneca creates. Claranus was a fellow student in Seneca's youth. 
At whose school? Perhaps that of Sotion or, more likely, that of Attalus, 
not implausible if one judges from the references throughout Seneca's 
works (Sotion: 49.2, 108.17-20; Attalus: 9.7, 63.5, 67.15, 72.8, 81.22, 108 
passim, 1 10.14, 20, NQ_ 2.48-50). If so, then Attalus' rather ascetic version 
of Stoicism should be kept in mind for this letter. Notice too that a sharp 
polarization of body and soul is introduced at the beginning and returns in 
the culmination of the letter with the contrast of the contributions of reason 
and the senses to the making of value assessments. This recalls the themes 
of 65 and is, again, consistent with what we know of Attalus' teaching. 

66.1 'Nature has been unfair.' Nature could never really be unfair, 
despite the way things look to the untutored eye. (See 66.36-44 for the 
role of nature in setting norms.) Hence the immediate self-correction ('Or 
maybe ... ') which draws attention to the difference between the common 

LETTER 66 157 

view of misfortune such as Claranus' and the philosophically informed 
view, which holds that such misfortune is, contrary to appearances, 
providential. The providential function of his case is to illustrate a vital 
philosophical truth about the relationship of mind and body. Note that 
Claranus is portrayed as having despised himself for his disfiguring 
misfortune before he came to appreciate the true value of bodily and 
mental attributes. 

'poor location for the soul'. Cf 58.35 where the body is treated as a 
'building' one may leave; 65.17, 21 where it is a 'dwelling'; 120.14 (and 
102.24) where it is a 'guest-house'. For Lucretius (3.440) the body is a 
'container' (vas) for the soul, which reminds us that body/soul dualism is 
not the exclusive preserve of Platonists or metaphysical dualists. 

66.2 When cited by Seneca, Vergil is more often an inspiration than a 
foil. But here he is introduced (like the common view in 66.1) only to be 
corrected. As the rest of the letter argues, it is inconceivable that virtue's 
worth could be increased by any circumstance. More significant is the 
claim that an assessment of Claranus' character did not merely outweigh 
Seneca's assessment of Claranus' body, but it changed his assessment of it. 

66.3 That a great man may come from humble origins is supported 
by a Piatonic maxim at 44.4 (the whole letter is pertinent to the theme 
of 66). The 'hut' (casa) as a sign of humble social origins is a familiar 
Roman cliché; see, e.g., Romuli casa at Valerius Maximus 2.8 pr. 6 and 
4.4. 11. 21; Lucretius 5.1011; most aptly Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 
1.6.3-4. Powerful leaders who rose from humble origin include the general 

The analogy (person: social setting :: mind: body), where the 'hut' 
represents one's social setting, carries on the theme of body/soul dualism. 
It also invokes the image of body as container for the soul. See on 66.1. 

'naked minds'. See also 76.32. This brings to mind the myth of the 
Gorgias (523), in which even the judges of the underworld could not make 
a proper assessment of the dead as long as they were judged in conjunction 
with their 'bodies', where body includes social circumstances. Hence the 
decision by Zeus to have naked souls judged. (Compare the value of 
death in improving moral judgements at Ben. 4. 1 1 . 5 and see Inwood 2005 : 
21 1 -12.) Seneca is perhaps trying to get Piatonic results without adopting 
Piatonic substance dualism; the goodness of Claranus is visible even while 
he remains in his body. (For the Stoic view that virtues are visible, see 


106.7 an d commentary.) The faet that moral excellence can be discerned 
even through a failing or defective body underlines the independence of 
such excellence from considerations of the body. In the Piatonic dialogue 
this point had to be made in a myth: the only way a human character could 
be abstracted from bodily considerations is by supposing body and soul to 
be fully separated after death, a circumstance not amenable to observation 
(let alone to replication in one's own life experience). By contrast, even 
in life someone like Claranus permits a discerning observer to see at one 
and the same time both the moral excellence and the physical obstacles. 
Seneca's claim is that this is a state of affairs providentially intended by 
Nature so that moral exempla will be available to observers to be imitated 
(the practical interest is indicated by 'virtue can come to exist in any 
place'). For further thoughts on such exemplarity, see 120 and 'Getting 
to Goodness' (ch. 10 of Inwood 2005). 

66.4 'exemplar'. After the occurrences of 'exemplars' in the Piatonic 
sense in 58 and 65 this point is unlikely to be accidental. If a Piatonic 
form is an exemplar towards which one looks in one's attempt to create 
something, then a morally exemplary person like Claranus may also be 
that to which one looks in trying to create one's own good character. This 
is how the moral paradigms of human life (both historical exempla and 
exceptional contemporaries) are to be understood. See also on 120. 

66.4-5 There were several days of conversation and an account of them 
all is promised. Yet no other letter refers back to this setting; where we 
might have expected that this be the first of a sequence of letters on 
connected themes, we get only one letter. This is an example of epistolary 
verisimilitude created by intentional incompleteness. Here we are told 
explicitly that 66 is the account of day one, but there is no day two. This 
studied informality contrasts with Cicero's careful control of dramatic 
setting in his dialogues. It is noteworthy that Seneca writes philosophical 
works deliberately in a genre (letters) for which Cicero was famous but 
which he not did not use for philosophy. 

66.5-6 Three kinds of good. The term for 'kind' here is condicio, which 
also means 'circumstance' or 'condition'. See also 87.36. Both facets of the 
meaning are relevant to the discussion. For philosophically alert readers, 
though, any threefold subdivision of goods would immediately bring to 
mind the tria genera bonorum (goods of the soul, of the body, and external 
goods) in Academic and Peripatetic philosophy (see D.L. 3.80- 1 with the 

LETTER 66 159 

note of Brisson ad loc, 5.30) also well attested in Cicero: Top. 83, Ae. 
1. 21-22, Fin. 3.41-43, 5.68, 5.84, Tuse. 5.24, 5.76, etc. It appears in the 
Aristotelian Divisiones. In faet, Seneca uses that language at 66.29 below. 
The Stoic tripartition of goods into those of the soul (virtues and their 
activities), externals (having a virtuous friend or homeland), and those that 
are neither of the soul nor externals (being virtuous and happy for oneself ) 
relies on the basic definition of good as virtue or what participates in virtue 
and seems to have been arranged as a tripartition in response to the Aca- 
demic and Peripatetic classifications (D.L. 7.94-6, cf. Stobaeus Ecl. 2.70). 

The main contrast discussed by Seneca in 66 is that between primary and 
secondary goods: those we choose in unconstrained situations and those 
we choose only when circumstances are dreadful. This is a classification 
of goods otherwise unknown in Stoic theory. See below on 66.36-7 
for Seneca's articulation of the basis for the classification in the theory of 
indifferents. This threefold classification is shown eventually to be sensible 
from the point of moral persuasion and decision-making. The tertiary 
goods of 66 (socially contingent factors like appropriate gait, posture, 
and expression) are also invoked in Cicero's De Officiis as elements of 
the officium of de c o rum (1. 128-33); suc h factors play a role in Aristotle's 
account of some social virtues as well, such as megalopsuchia (e.g., EN 

The marked difference between Seneca's threefold classification and 
the traditional tria genera suggests that the letter intentionally invokes the 
doctrine of three kinds of goods in order to raise the issue of the contrast 
between Stoic and Academic/Peripatetic classifications of the good — an 
issue which was central to Cicero's De Finibus. (It also continues the 
theme of 'counting' and classification seen in 58 and 65.) Stoic theory 
regards bodily and external 'goods' (the other two genera in the competing 
classification) as preferred indifferents (whose indifference consists in 
their not contributing to the telos of a happy life and whose preferredness 
consists in their selective value established by nature); only virtue and 
what participates in it contribute to a happy life. The Stoic criticism of 
the Peripatetic scheme rested on the view that recognition of bodily and 
external goods gave them a role, however small, in the happiest life. This is 
a sustainable interpretation of Aristotle's position and the common ancient 
view was that Theophrastus' ethics left him even more vulnerable to the 
charge that external and therefore contingent factors were being allowed 
to affect happiness. The Antiochean view oi Fin. 4-5 has to defend itself 
against this. See Irwin 1986; also I. Hadot 1969: 87. 


'unconditionally' renders derecto. The central idea is that there are no 
complicating or mediating factors. 

'unfortunate circumstances'. Circumstances are the materia, raw materi- 
al (hule) of virtue. In this letter Seneca is arguing (1) that the circumstances 
(res below) do not determine the moral quality of our actions or attitudes 
but are the mere raw material, (2) that the conditions of our bodies are 
mere circumstances and not components of our moral condition, and 
(3) all raw materials permit of good action. The case of Claranus is meant 
to illustrate these claims with a concrete and personal exemplum even as 
the letter gives arguments for them. 

66.6 The main question is put. The equality of primary and secondary 
goods will seem problematic if we take different attitudes to them (desire 
and aversion). This issue is addressed below (66.14, 66.19) with the 
distinction between choosing and selecting, which parallels the distinction 
between good things and preferred indifferents. See Inwood 1985: ch. 6. 

As in 58.8, Seneca claims that a preliminary bit of doctrine will facilitate 
the solution. Here Seneca must explain what the primary good is like in 
order to compare it with secondary goods. Note that Seneca has shifted 
from primary goods (in the plural) in 66.5 to a single primary good in 66.6 
without remarking on the change. In 66.5 he included a number of things 
which would be chosen for their own sakes as examples of a primary good 
without restricting himself to technical Stoic goods. Here he has in view 
a more narrowly Stoic understanding of the good. Since on Stoic theory 
the good is 'virtue and what participates in virtue' and since virtue is a 
state of the rational soul, the central instance of the good will be a virtuous 
condition of the rational soul, i.e., the mind or hegemonikon (this is made 
explicit at the end of 66.6). Since, as we see in later letters (106, 117), 
qualities are not other than the body of which they are qualities, the theory 
here gives an early hint of the metaphysical subtlety which lies at the core 
of Seneca's Stoicism. The close relationship between such a mind and the 
life it lives is articulated at 92.3-4. 

The catalogue of the mind's meritorious traits is intriguing. It includes 
the following: 

(i) Theoretical virtue (devotion to the truth). 

(ii) Experience in practical decision-making. This is perhaps an 

aspect of the 'experience (empeiria) of what happens by nature' 

recognized as part of the goal of life by Chrysippus (Ecl. 

2.75. D.L. 7.87, Fin. 3.31); even more pertinent are Stobaeus 

LETTER 66 l6l 

Ecl. 2.99.9-12 and 2.102.20-2 where it is noted that the sage 

makes use of experience in matters bearing on human life. 
(iii) Sound axiology based on nature rather than convention or 

opinion (for which compare 81.7-8). 
(iv) A focus on cosmology as a reference point for life (for which 

see 58.25 fif., 65.19 ff. and notes; also NQ_ 1 pref; see Maurach 

1970: 138-9, 145). 
(v) Equal attention to thought and action (compare the logikos bios 

of D.L. 7.130). 
(vi-vii) Greatness of soul (magnitudo animi), for which there are parallels 

at, e.g., De Vita Beata 8.3, Const. Sap. 6.2-3, 71.5. 
(viii) An attractive orderliness (cf. 124.18). 
(ix) Temperance and constantia. 

This is not a mechanical or canonical list of the attributes of virtue, but 
distinctively Stoic traits are well represented. Compare Cleanthes' verse 
catalogue of the attributes of virtue in the Hymn to Zeus (SVF 1.557); a l so 
120.11. Further parallels can be found in the notes to the Bude edition 
ad loc. Helpful discussion in Maurach 1970: 138-40 and I. Hadot 1969: 
101-4, 108. 

66.7 This section builds on a distinction between virtue's nature (its facies 
or appearance if seen as a whole) and its various observable manifestations 
in particular circumstances of life — where one can 'see' the psychological 
traits of others. The contrast between essence and appearance lies behind 
this distinction. Plato (in the Meno and Protagoras) had rejected a pluralist 
and socially relativistic account of virtue, and earlier Stoics were committed 
to some version of the unity of virtues. Here the idea is that there is a 
single underlying virtue and a variety of manifestations of it in different 
circumstances; this does not commit Seneca clearly to either the Aristonian 
or the Chrysippean position on the unity of virtue. See Schofield 1984, 
and below on 113. 

66.7-8 This position permits any apparent differences in the character 
of virtue to be attributed to its merely overt manifestations and the varied 
circumstances in which it acts; Seneca's claim would be that although 
there are significant differences among situations involving virtue, those 
differences are not in virtue itself. Seneca does not need to deny that there 
are important differences in the situations we see, but can nevertheless 
argue that closer analysis of the situation reveals a unity of virtue behind 


the appearances. Seneca goes further and claims that virtue shapes the 
moral quality of the various actions it underlies — just as in 66.2 Claranus' 
psychological merits caused Seneca to change his perception of his physical 
defects. Compare also 31.5. 

The further claim 'and so its power and magnitude cannot rise higher' 
is permitted rather than compelled by the claims made so far. A more 
limited claim would be merely that since variations in apparent value can 
be attributed to circumstances there is no necessity to posit variability in 
virtue. Is there, then, a basis for Seneca's claim that virtue cannot vary? 
At the end of 66.8 and in 66.9 a conceptual argument is made for the 
invariance of virtue. If virtue is (by definition) something maximal, as a 
perfection would be, then it cannot increase. If it is comparable to the 
straight, the true, and the balanced then it cannot vary in those respects, 
since each of them is an absolute; virtue, then, is to be thought of as a 
limiting term and ought not to admit of variation. The claim that virtue 
is by nature an all-inclusive perfection is grounded in the eudaimonist 

For the general Stoic view on the equality of virtue, see D.L. 7.101, 
7.120, Comm. Not. 1076a = LS 61J, Epict. Gnom. 56 Schenkl. The 
theme dominates the rest of this letter (see esp. 66.11,15,28-32) and 
recurs in 71 (see esp. 71.8,16,21); cf 79.10. The doctrine is invoked as 
well at 1 13. 16. The metaphysical foundation for this ethical doctrine is 
expressed well by Simplicius (In Cat. CIAG vol. 8: 237.25-238.32 = 
SVF 2.393 = LS 47S) who informs us that the Stoics defined diathesis 
and hexis differently than Aristotle. For Aristotle (Cat. 8), a diathesis is a 
long-lasting and stable condition, while a hexis can be relatively transitory. 
For the Stoics, says Simplicius, a diathesis is a state which cannot vary in 
degree while a hexis can: virtues, according to the Stoics, are diatheseis. 
The Stoics and Aristotle agreed that virtue and knowledge are diatheseis 
but (according to Simplicius) differed about the trait in virtue of which 
they count as diatheseis. Aristotle thought that durability and difficulty 
of change were key; the Stoics thought that invariance in degree was 
central. It is important to note, however, that Simplicius does not deny 
(at 237.34-238.1) that the Stoics held that virtue was stable and hard to 
change. See Rieth 1933: ch. 5; I. Hadot 1969: 102, n. 23 and 103-26. 

66.9 'consists in a limit', in modo. It is not immediately clear whether 
modus is meant to represent a 'mean' (Greek meson) as in an Aristotelian 
account of virtue or a 'limit' (Greek horos) as is suggested by 'measure' 
(mensura). Préchac (in the notes to the Bude edition) suggests the former 

LETTER 66 163 

interpretation, but the argument which follows in this letter points rather 
to the latter view. 

66.10 The univocity of the good is asserted without further support, but 
plausibly enough in the context of this argument. A univocal conception 
of the good seems to be Piatonic doctrine and Stoics had already defined 
the good as the useful (see CHHP 687-90). This assumption of univocity 
(see CHHP 693-4) forestalls the suggestion that personal advantage and 
the advantage of a social group to which one belongs might both be goods 
and nevertheless conflict with each other in a given situation. Cicero too 
(Off. 3.1 1, cf. Leg. 1.33) had argued that personal and public benefit 
were convergent when properly understood. Seneca does not defend 
this premiss about the good here but draws a conclusion that is quite 
appropriate in view of the definition of the good, that the virtues and 
everything that participates in them (actions and agents) are equal. 

'the virtues are equal to each other'. Compare Ben. 7.13, where Seneca 
asserts that all 'favours' are equal (since they are the actions of a virtuous 
soul) but that the material means of expressing those favours may be 
greater or lesser. This is an instance of the relationship between the 
virtues and the indifferents which make up their circumstances or raw 

66.1 1- 12 Human virtue is linked to the divine (which is agreed to be 
perfect and so invariant) rather than to the relative perfections of lower 
entities on the scala naturae which admit of variation. It is standard Stoic 
doctrine, often echoed in Seneca (e.g., NQ_ 1 pref. 14, 41, 92.27, 124.14), 
that (a) god is reason, (b) a human being is rational, and (c) reason is what 
connects us with the divine. 

The argument here is less clear and persuasive than one might like. It 
is, of course, not true that piants and animals have virtues, since they lack 
reason. But this is merely a point of usage, since 'virtue' has an extended 
sense in which it applies to the relevant excellence of any object (compare 
74.17, 124.11-15 and Chrysippus' recognition of a looser use of the term 
'good': St. Rep. 1048a = LS 58H). 

More worrisome is the correlation asserted here between the transitori- 
ness of non-rational natures and the issue of whether their excellence can 
be invariant in degree. For there is no reason that the two issues should be 
linked. Seneca seems to be exploiting in an illegitimate way two distinct 
'defects' of non-rational beings, their variability and their transitoriness. 


This argument, then, relies solely on an association of traits ('comports 
well'); Socrates uses comparable arguments in the Phaedo (78-80). 

On the other hånd, Seneca's positive claim need not be wholly under- 
mined by this weakness. Human rationality is held to be of divine quality 
when it is perfected (see Comm. Not. 1076a = LS 61J); and the divine 
is plausibly held to be a limiting condition of goodness; hence human 
rationality when perfected (i.e., virtue) must also be a limiting condition 
of goodness. Hence it cannot increase (no greater goodness is possible) nor 
can it be reduced without ceasing to be what it is. And this is true whether 
the perfection lasts for a split-second (Plutarch, Comm. Not. io6if and 
other texts at SVF 3.54 and 3.539) or for the entire duration of time until 
the next conflagration puts an end even to those souls which survive bodily 
death (D.L. 7.157). 

'are depleted and pass away'. In pursuit of strict symmetry with the 
paired verbs which follow, Shackleton-Bailey (1970: 353) would supply 
'are depleted <and grow again, come to be> and pass away'. This seems 
unnecessary and intrusive. 

66.12 The argument seems to be: 

1 . Reason is divine. 

2. Everything good has reason. 

3. Therefore everything good is divine. 

4. There is no distinction of value among divine things. 

5. Therefore there is no distinction of value among goods. 

To make it valid, several quite charitable assumptions would have to be 
made. Its conclusion (5) is meant to follow from its premisses, of course; 
but its plausibility is reinforced by the use of the distinction between 
virtue and its manifestations to explain away the apparent indications that 
different circumstances are characterized by different degrees of goodness. 

66.13 The siege of Numantia (134-133 bc) was a famous event in 
Roman history. In this exploitation of it, the point is that the conqueror 
and the conquered both showed virtue to the same degree even though 
their external circumstances differed enormously. Roman admiration for 
the valour of the defeated Numantians could be taken for granted, as 
could a general appreciation of Scipio's virtue. Hence Seneca can expect 
acceptance of his argument that if such a life-and-death difference did not 
affect virtue, then afortiori nothing else would. 

'resolve' renders animus, elsewhere usually translated 'mind'. 

LETTER 66 165 

66.14 The contrast of what is invariant in a situation (its goodness) 
and what is variable (the 'intermediates' or the indifferent aspects of the 
attendant circumstances, ta periestekota). Seneca seems to think that the 
contrast made here is plausible in itself; but in faet this is an informal 
account of a Stoic technical doctrine (hinted at with the term media). For 
the sense of 'naturaP used here, see 66.19. 

66.15 Virtue as contrasted with its materia. The Greek term is hule; see 
Comm. Not. 10696 = SVF 3.491 = LS 59 A. Seneca again invokes the 
conceptual argument: as a perfection virtue cannot vary in degree. 

66.16-17 Argument based on the agreed characteristics of the hon- 
ourable (honestum, to kalon). 

'contentment' renders sibi placere (see OLD placeo 1 c). In the Bude this 
is translated 'la satisfaction intime'. Maurach (1970: 141) thinks that the 
phrase refers to doing something with pleasure as a mark of its being 
done freely. But the description just given of the accompaniments of 
action (mixed with 'foot-dragging, complaint, hesitation, fear') shows 
by itself that there is no pleasure in it and so seems to capture the 
affective dimension. The resultant lack of 'contentment', then, seems to be 
something more reflective. At Med. 3 1 Ovid says sibi can yield 
a kind of pleasure, thus marking the difference between the faet of being 
satisfied with oneself and the pleasure one takes at it. Further, sibi placere 
can have a strongly negative sense of 'self-satisfaction'; see 88.37 where self- 
satisfaction with one's own erudition discourages the learning of 'necessary 
things'. It seems fair, then, to conclude that 'contentment' here is a second- 
order state of mind about the conditions accompanying one's actions. 

Fear is a mark of 'slavery' because it is a concern about externals and 
puts one at the mercy of others or of Fortune. Fear is a passion and absence 
of it is apatheia which is the only true freedom (Bobzien 1998: esp. ch. 
7). Compare Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum 5.34. 1 discuss various aspects of 
Seneca's conception of freedom in 'Seneca on Freedom and Autonomy', 
ch. 11 oflnwood 2005. 

66.17 This description of the honourable captures what Zeno meant 
by the 'smooth flow of life' (eurhoia biou, at Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.77 = SVF 
1. 184) and reflects the universal Stoic position about the internal harmony 
(homologia) of a virtuous life. Strictly speaking the 'honourable' here 
refers primarily to an individual honourable action, but since possession 


of virtue is a necessary condition for such an action and virtue is an 
all-or-nothing state which characterizes a whole life, the characterization 
of the honourable in these terms is readily understandable. 

The attitude urged for the person contemplating an honourable action 
is consonant with Stoic theory. The obstacles to such an action should 
not be thought of as bad because they cannot in faet be bad. The only 
bad things are vice and its associated States and objects, and vice (except 
one's own) cannot be an obstacle to the choice of an honourable action. 
On a strict version of Stoic theory, one's own vice prevents honourable 
action in a decisive way — a vicious person cannot aet honourably. But 
if Seneca is here considering an agent who falls short of virtue, and this 
agent is choosing an action under the description 'honourable' (because 
he or she recognizes it as the kind of thing a virtuous agent would do in 
the circumstances), then his or her own vice cannot be an obstacle taken 
into account by the agent. 

Rather, the 'obstacles' considered here are (as Seneca says) dispreferred 
things (pain, disease, poverty, ignominy, eta). To interpret them as being 
'bad' rather than merely 'dispreferred' is the basic mistake which (as Stoics 
think) characterizes unphilosophical people. See Inwood 1985: 165-75. 
The preference for not suffering dispreferred things is of course quite 
strong (see, e.g., 67.4). But if one regards as bad (rather than merely 
dispreferred) the obstacles which must be passed through on the way to 
achieving a good, then a serious problem arises. For if (as the Stoics claim) 
bad is as much to be avoided as good is to be pursued, and if we have to 
accept bad to attain good, then we would never rationally pursue the good. 
Hence it is necessary for a happy life to become clear about the value of 
indifferents; seeing that they are, in faet, indifferent makes an internally 
consistent (and so a satisfying) life possible. 

66.18 The Epicurean claim about torture: a number of pertinent texts 
are collected as fr. 601 Usener. See esp. D.L. 10. 118, Tuse. 2.17, Fin. 
2.88. Similar views were expressed by Epicurus in letters to Hermarchus 
(fr. 122 Usener = Fin. 2.96 etc.) and Idomeneus (fr. 138 Usener = D.L. 
10.22, alluded to by Seneca also at 66.47 an d 9 2 - 2 5)- At Fin. 5.85 the 
doctrine plays a role in the debate about the tria genera bonorum en visaged 
between Peripatetics and Stoics. 

Here Seneca forestalls an objection by means ofapraeteritio. Renouncing 
a mere ad hominem rejoinder strengthens Seneca's claim to be offering a 
respectable argument. Here he also foreshadows the anti-sensualist move 
at the end of the letter. 

LETTER 66 167 

66.19-20 A nearly explicit assertion of axiological dualism; as in 66.14, 
the natural preferability of some States of affairs provides a good reason for 
selecting them over others which are dispreferred. Yet this does not mean 
that such values are determinative of happiness (and so evaluable as good 
or bad). Here too the equality of virtue is contrasted with the variability 
of circumstances. Cicero's term for 'dispreferred' {incommodum) is used 
here. The examples of the light and rain in the ocean here are also 
drawn from Cicero {Fin. 3.45, cf 5.71; also 92.5, 92.17), who illustrates 
differences in kind with examples that accentuate the importance of 
extreme differences in quantity. Although one might think it a confusion 
to illustrate fundamental differences in quality with examples that appear 
to rest on extreme differences in quantity, Seneca defends the legitimacy of 
the practice in 118. 14 ff. For a modern attempt to defend the conceptual 
viability of the point, see S. J. Gould's 'Darwin's Cultural Degree' in 
Gould 2002: 231: 'A sufficient difference in quantity translates to what we 
call difference in quality ipsofacto\ 

'ask me for my selection', electio is the Latin term for 'selection' here. 

66.21 'situation' renders the Latin res. The argument here is based on 
moral prejudice, that is, our image of what the good man will do (the basis 
of which is an unargued set of popular assumptions; note that in Latin the 
gendered term vir is used). One might ask why one set of unargued popular 
assumptions gets preferential treatment over the so-called common sense 
which is rejected (assuming that at least some people's common sense, then 
as now, would question the advisability of a suicidal devotion to carrying 
out a noble deed). Perhaps the thought is that although the 'common- 
sense' intuition and the Stoic intuition disagree, Seneca and other Stoics 
think that only their side is supported by arguments of independent merit. 
The assumption might be thought to have some argumentative weight 
when conjoined with a real argument, but the weakness displayed here 
cannot be denied. 

'benefit to himself'. The good is defined as 'benefit' (D.L. 7.94; Sextus 
M. 11.22; Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.69, eta); cf. 71.36, 117.27. 

The comparison of the honourable situation to a good man is important. 
We are familiar with the idea that a good person is someone to whom 
one's safety can be entrusted, and Seneca invites the reader to think 
of a situation as being comparable. Since the good is virtue and what 
participates in virtue, and since a good person and an honourable situation 


both participate in virtue, the invitation should be accepted by anyone 
committed to Stoic value theory. In both cases the agent is entrusting 
him- or herself to virtue in some manifestation, and it is precisely that 
commitment to the good which assures the agent that he or she is doing 
the right thing and so will be happy. 

For the idea that virtue can assure our genuine 'safety', if not our physical 
survival, see Gorgias 511-12. That virtue can be a source of prosperity 
and other conventional goods is claimed by Socrates ztApology 30b. 

66.22— 6 Here Seneca advances an argument which amounts to a thought 
experiment based on moral sentiment. 

66.22-3 We are asked to imagine first how we would regard two good 
men one of whom is rich and the other poor. It is uncontroversial that their 
goodness will be assessed independently of their prosperity, whether one 
is using a Stoic understanding of goodness or a more mundane one. Seneca 
is relying on the assumption that most people (even non-Stoics) would, 
no doubt, recoil from regarding a less wealthy individual as less good just 
because they are less wealthy (though perhaps in doing so many would 
nevertheless display the confusion of their moral concepts). 'Situations' 
that one might be in are, then, treated analogously to wealth: if wealth does 
not affect goodness then neither should other situations which are extra- 
neous to one's state of character. The situations adduced here are bodily 
health and civic freedom. At this point in the letter an objector would have 
to find some reason for saying that these external states should be treated 
differently than wealth. In 66.23 Seneca directs the point to Lucilius' (or 
the reader's) own self-assessment. We should recall that the force of this 
argument rests primarily on acceptance of the sharp distinction drawn 
between the value of virtue (the good) and the value of the indifferents. 

66.24-5 Another appeal to a moral intuition, coupled with a reliance 
on Stoic axiology. Situations are possible objects of pursuit or avoidance, 
just as friends are objects of affection. Both situations and people can 
participate in virtue or fail to do so (the good is virtue or what participates 
in virtue). So one's affective state with regard to friends is analogous to 
one's pursuit or avoidance of a situation. Seneca's argument relies on this 
analogy: if one would not love a friend less on the grounds that he or she 
has fewer preferred indifferents or more dispreferred indifferents, but only 
on the basis of his or her virtue, then one should not choose a situation 
less readily if it has fewer preferred indifferents or more dispreferred 

LETTER 66 169 

indifferents. To the extent that the analogy holds the argument is sound. 
It is assumed, of course, that the agent considering the situations and 
the friends is acting on the basis of Stoic values and so considers the 
indifferents in a separate calculus from the one used with regard to good 
and bad things. A Stoic might think that a Peripatetic agent would be 
liable to fail to keep these considerations distinct. 

In 66.25 a soritical ('little by little', kata mikron) argument is exploited 
rhetorically. Consideration of extrinsic factors such as bodily or social 
condition could, at the limit, lead to a preference for one friend over 
another on the basis of a hair style. Again, however, the legitimacy of 
the argument rests upon acceptance of the fundamental dualism of Stoic 
value theory. Hence at the end of 66.25 a distinction is drawn between 
things which are parts of a good state of affairs and those which are mere 
adjuncts to it (the indifferents). (At 74.17 such things are called mancipia, 
possessions, rather than parts of us.) 

The claim that the inequality of extrinsic factors 'disappears' (non 
comparet) or has no weight on decisions once virtue-considerations have 
been equalized needs clarification. Seneca claims, in effect, that when 
choosing between two equally virtuous situations one has no reason to 
prefer the one endowed with more preferred indifferents — but on Stoic 
theory that is precisely where one does exercise the preference for things 
according to nature. If a life of virtue plus health is set beside a life of 
virtue plus sickness, then it accords with nature to choose the package 
that contains health. But it is a mistake to choose the healthy package on 
the understanding that it is better than the alternative, and this is Seneca's 
point here. His central goal in this letter is to drive home the difference 
between the two kinds of value (good and bad vs. the indifferents) and not 
to explicate the ways one would in faet make practical choices between 
situations that differ only with regard to their indifferent 'adjuncts'. Yet 
in this section he has certainly overstated the conclusion of his soritical 
line of argument in a way that might easily mislead the reader. 

This passage is highly reminiscent of De Finibus 5.71, where ne cer- 
nantur quidem corresponds to non comparet here and the term accessiones 
('adjuncts') is also found, used in the same sense as in this passage of 
Seneca ('for all these other things are not parts but adjuncts'). Cicero's 
Peripatetic spokesman is arguing that although external goods count 
towards the happiest life, their significance is vanishingly small compared 
to that of virtue. If one compares De Finibus 3.45 it seems that Cicero 
brings the Stoic and Peripatetic/Antiochean positions astonishingly close 
together — a move which suits Cicero's agenda, as it does also in the 


De Officiis. Seneca's interest as a Stoic is in emphasizing more aggressively 
the distance between his position and Cicero's. 

'everything within himself. This is reminiscent of the anecdote about 
Stilpo (9. 18-19, Const. Sap. 5.6 and fragment 151 Doring) who, when 
deprived of all external goods, said 'I have lost nothing; all my goods are 
with me'. Compare also 42.10, 45.9. 

66.26 Our attachment to virtue has been compared to our attachment to 
friends; the comparison is extended to children. External factors would 
not affect our equal attachment to our children; the claim (whether 
plausible or not) that animals behave this way as well is intended to show 
that this is a completely natural inclination, not a product of contestable 
cultural forces. In faet, the example of our attitude to our children is 
itself intended to strengthen the analogy with friends against a possible 
reply that we do not or should not treat friends equally regardless of their 
external characteristics. Whatever view one might take of friends, the 
Stoics claimed that parental attachment to one's children as such is a basic 
and ineradicable affiliation (oikeiosis) that lies at the foundation of our 
entire system of moral attachments, including our commitments to virtue 
and fair treatment of all other human beings. (See Cicero, Fin. 3.62 ff; 
N.D. 2.128-9; Off. 1.11-12; Plutarch, Sto. Rep. ch. 12.) 

Attachment to one's homeland regardless of its humble character is 
illustrated with the Homeric example of Odysseus, whose attachment to 
his poor and rocky Ithaca was at least as great as that felt by Agamemnon for 
wealthy Mycenae. The point is not that Odysseus preferred Ithaca because 
of its lack of advantages, but merely that his sense of belonging created 
an attachment which was independent of externals — a point illustrated 
more clearly when the attachment is for something relatively undesirable 
(it is easy, after all, to suspect that Agamemnon loved Mycenae because of 
its wealth and power). 

Seneca has, then, compared our attachment to a virtuous (honourable) 
action or life to our attachment to friends, children, and homeland. In 
each case the attachment is plausibly claimed to be independent of the 
extrinsic attributes of the object of our attachment and such independence 
is more easily seen when the object possesses negative extrinsic attributes. 
Ordinary intuitions underlie the point about friends; for the case of 
children our intuitions are underpinned by the Stoic theory of oikeiosis; 
Homeric precedent secures the claim about love for one's homeland. 
Claranus' case works the same way — the admirable quality of his life is 

LETTER 66 171 

certainly not due to his external bodily condition. Hence his suitability as 
a focus for the discussion of externals in relation to virtue. 

66.27 'What is the relevance of this?' As often, a rhetorical question 
about the purpose of the discussion articulates the letter and guides the 
reader to focus on the main issue. At 58.25 and 65.15 the call to return 
to relevance articulates the letter in a similar way, but here there is no 
change of topic, since the discussion has been of relevance to choices and 
behaviour throughout. (I thank Gur Zak for first making this point.) The 
articulation, then, draws attention to the thematic difference between 66 
and (at the least) its immediate predecessor 65. 

Here Seneca raises a crucial question about the attitudes one should 
have towards unfortunate situations. Virtue is compared to a parent and 
in both cases there is a tension between the strict equality of evaluation 
(children in the literal case; actions, people, and situations in the case of 
virtue) and the inequality of the affective relationship to the dependents. 
The unfortunate evoke a greater warmth and care, perhaps, than do the 
fortunate — despite their equal value. (Seneca uses different words for the 
equal and the unequal responses to one's children: 'cherishing' (diligere) in 
66.26 and 'love' (amor) in 66.27. Although Seneca's intention is clear, these 
terms do not seem sufficiently distinct to express his meaning proper ly.) 

This raises a more general issue about Seneca's treatment of the indiffer- 
ents. He is often thought to have an inappropriately or unjustifiably strong 
attraction for unfortunate circumstances, especially death. His apparently 
positive valuation of dispreferred things seems to betray influences from 
Platonist or Pythagorean thought that are in conflict with earlier and 
mainstream Stoicism, or to indicate features of Seneca's personality which 
influence his philosophical views without rational warrant. But often the 
motivation for the positive valuation is in faet articulated and reasonable: 
negative circumstances are more valuable for training one's character and 
reflection on them helps one to discern core Stoic values (such as the 
commitment to axiological dualism) more clearly. Here there is a further 
consideration. Having used the analogy with parental love to support his 
claims about virtue (or the virtuous agent) Seneca deals forthrightly with 
a relevant feature of the analogue. Parents, even those who value their 
children equally, often do experience a difference in their affective and 
motivational relationships to their children. Given the Stoic commitment 
to a cognitive account of affective states, there should be a statable reason 
for such a discrepancy and Seneca here proposes one: there is a kind of 
compensatory pity for the weaker offspring. In addition to being a frank 


and plausible account of a significant affective phenomenon, this both 
blocks a possible objection based on the analogy (someone might say that it 
is false that parents value their children equally if they did not distinguish 
between the equal valuation and the affective discrepancy) and contributes 
to an account of the occasional and otherwise puzzling sense that tough 
circumstances are somehow better. 

66.28 A return to the argument based on the absolute nature of the 
concept. 'Fitting' (aptum), 'flat' (in a geometricai sense), and 'equal' are all 
predicates which apply absolutely or not at all. Hence they establish that 
such concepts exist. 'Honourable' is asserted to be a concept of this type. 

66.29 The equality of all the virtues (that is, of all forms of the 
honourable) entails that the tria genera bonorum (see above on 66.5-6) 
are 'on an equal footing' (in aequo). This does not mean that one has 
to have a relationship identical in all respects to goods bundled with 
preferred things and goods bundled with dispreferred things; there is 
room for differences in our evaluation of the bundle, differences based on 
the selective value of the indifferences in the bundle. Being on an equal 
footing does mean that one would not make choices or value judgements 
on the basis of the circumstances in which virtue is exercised. The goods 
which are choiceworthy are the ones in favourable circumstances; the 
admirable ones are in unfavourable circumstances (the goods of the first 
two types distinguished in 66.5). 

Again the Ciceronian term incommodum is used for dispreferred things 
and as above the language of quantity intrudes (see on 66.19-20). 'Oblit- 
erated' is perhaps an overtranslation for tegitur, which could literally be 
rendered 'covered over' or 'concealed'. I take it, though, that Seneca 
means to emphasize that the dispreferred aspects of a situation cease to 
affect one's assessment of it or decision about it — they become 'invisible' 
to the decision context without actually becoming non-existent. 

66.30 Seneca explains how people come to the mistaken view about the 
importance of indifferents. It is a matter of which aspect of a situation 
they direct their 'gaze' to. The unimportance of externals for our decisions 
about right action is illustrated with a metaphor based on physical objects. 
Weight counts, volume does not. And volume can, by its superficial 
appearance, mislead us about weight. The idea that good decisions about 
values and actions are based on a kind of accurate measurement goes 
back at least to Plato's Protagoras. But volume is not being dismissed as 

LETTER 66 173 

an unreal property of objects; it is merely irrelevant to the assessment 
of their weight, and in that sense it misleads if it is misused. For the 
metaphor, cf. 93.4. 

66.31 The valuations of reason in contrast to the reckless judgements 
of popular opinion. The latter are misevaluations of externals as though 
they were good or bad and so are the cause of passions (cf. 91. 19-21). 
Thinking that a dispreferred indifferent is bad will generate the passion 
fear (see Inwood 1985: ch. 5). Valuations made by reason are stable and so 
form a proper basis for long-term decisions. The equation of misguided 
and passionate humans to animals is a common oversimplification (see also 
74.5, for example). Strictly speaking, non-rational animals cannot make 
such evaluations and so do not have real passions. Their fear is not the real 
thing. See Tuse. 4.31 and Inwood 1985: 72-3, 100; also Seneca, De Ira 1.3. 

66.32 Moral misevaluations are connected to passions: 'excites' renders 
diffundit, which corresponds roughly to the Greek term eparsis (irrational 
'elevation' is a description of the passion pleasure); 'depresses' renders 
mordet, which might more literally be translated 'bites'. 'Bite' (the Greek 
term is degmos) is also used to refer to pain (lupe) or similar psychological 
states. See Tuse. 3.83 and Inwood 1985: 178 with notes; also Graver 2002: 
127. Such passions are transient as opposed to permanent. Seneca's views 
here about the relationship between passions and axiology are standard 
Stoic doctrine. 

66.32 Two themes emerge here: the relationship between reason and 
the senses (commanding and obedience) and the claim that reason is 
an invariant limiting concept like virtue itself (see above). The identity 
between virtue and straight reason (recta ratio, more often translated 
'right reason') is asserted. Seneca seems to be saying that what is truly, 
i.e., normatively, reason is 'straight reason'. But 'straight' is an invariant 
concept. So reason is also like that — but only in its proper (normative) 
form. What this approach implicitly leaves out of consideration is an 
empiricai or descriptive account of how reason operates which would 
leave room for a state of the soul which is treated as genuine reason but 
which admits of variation of competence and defect. The omission is 
perhaps justifiable because Seneca is only considering cases of virtuous 
action (the honourable) and virtue is by definition perfected reason. 

'firm in its judgement'. See esp. 71.32, 95.57. I comment further on this 
in 'Moral Judgement in Seneca', ch. 7 of Inwood 2005. 


66.33-4 This is a theoretically crucial move. What an action is is 
determined by the reasoning and state of mind which generates it. (This 
is a feature of earlier Stoic theory of action as well: see Inwood 1985: 
99-101, 213-14.) The 'raw materiaP and other extrinsic factors do not 
determine the essential evaluative characteristics of an action. See above 
on materia. Note the care taken by Seneca to restrict his claims about the 
sameness of actions to a precisely relevant aspect. It is qua honourable and 
virtuous that the actions are equal; it is only what is best in actions which 
is equal. The same point is made in 66.34 m tne analogy with good men: 
it is only with regard to that in virtue of which they are good that they are 
equal. (This is a close analogy, since actions and agents are 'participants' 
in virtue — good is virtue and what participates in it — and the argument 
for equality rests entirely on the features of the virtue they participate in.) 
See above on 66.22-6. 

66.35 Here Seneca focusses on the defects of the senses when considered 
as makers of value judgements and the ability of reason to do the job well. 
It is noteworthy that Seneca provides a justification for putting reason in 
charge of significant value judgements. The general eudaimonist project 
in ethics involves making plans for a whole life and the Stoic version 
of it puts a high value on internal consistency within that whole-life 
plan. It is in this context that one judges what is useful and (since good 
is understood Socratically as genuine Utility) good. The faculty which 
makes such judgements must, then, be able not only to discern Utility 
but also to handle past and present in conjunction with the present and 
the relationships of consequence and causation that obtain among them. 
Seneca claims (cf. 124.2-4, 124.16-17) that sense perception cannot 
do that and that reason can. Hence it is 'the arbiter of what is good 
and bad' and can recognize, on the basis of a diachronic understanding 
of what is useful over a whole life, that the good is within the mind 
and that things outside the mind are at best marginal adjuncts to a 
successful life. 

66.36-7 It being established that reason is in charge of making such 
judgements, Seneca repeats the judgements that reason reaches. The 
goods considered here are actions and situations engaged in by virtuous 
agents (otherwise we would not be considering goods — good is virtue or 
what participates in virtue). All three genera are invoked here, but the 
main contrast is between the primary and secondary types as outlined 
above. The third kind of goods, actions (such as walking and sitting in 

LETTER 66 175 

the virtuous way), undertaken by a virtuous person, are also mentioned. 
At 66.5 it was not emphasized that the actions considered (walking 
and sitting) are in themselves completely indifferent. But here Seneca 
asserts pointedly that such conventional actions are no more natural 
than unnatural. The contrast between 'sitting' and 'orderly sitting' and 
between 'walking' and 'prudent walking' draws attention to the faet 
that they are goods only because they are done in a virtuous manner. 
In contrast to the absolute indifference of the third type of goods, the 
first type is preferred (the underlying action is according to nature) 
and the second type is dispreferred (contrary to nature). Hence the 
innovative threefold classification of goods introduced in this letter is 
here mapped precisely onto the threefold classification of indifferents: 
preferred, dispreferrred, absolute. 

For further discussion see 'Rules and Reasoning in Stoic Ethics', 
ch. 4 of Inwood 2005. For the contrast between preferred /dispreferred 
indifferents and absolute indifferents, see D.L. 7.104 and CHHP 690-7. 

66.38-44 By way of objection and response, Seneca explicates the 
contrast between what is according to nature in the strong sense (virtue) 
and indifferents which can be according to nature or in conflict with 
nature in a weaker sense. The contrast here is built on the distinction 
drawn earlier in the letter between the material or circumstances of a good 
and the good itself. In 66.38 the contrast is made between the good itself 
(which cannot be contrary to nature) and 'the circumstances in which the 
good arises'. Several themes here are found also in 5.4. 

In 66.39 tne impossibility of conflict between a good and nature is 
explained with reference to reason. A genuine good involves reason and 
reason cannot conflict with nature. The reason why reason cannot conflict 
with nature is that human reason is an imitation of nature, in the sense 
that when it is functioning properly our reason 'tracks' or is responsive 
to nature (literally, 'follows' it). This view is tenable because nature is 
equated with perfected reason operating in the world and because human 
reason and cosmic reason are held to be qualitatively identical. Hence the 
greatest human good (summum bonum, the topic of Cicero's De Finibus), 
which is the perfection of his characteristic attribute, reason, can properly 
be glossed as 'comporting oneself in accordance with the will of nature'. 
For the idea of the 'will of nature' see Inwood 1985: 26-7, 71, 119-20, 
160, 203-5, 2 °8, 2I2 - 

In 66.40 the objector (who need not be an Epicurean — any support- 
er of common sense against Stoic revisionism would make the same 


point) attempts an inference from the uncontroversial claim that pre- 
ferred indifferents such as stable peace and unthreatened good health 
are 'happier' states of affairs to the conclusion that they are the occasion 
for greater goods. By using the term felicior for 'happier' the objector 
perhaps appeals to eudaimonistic intuitions, but Seneca is careful to 
put in the objector's mouth a term not usually applied to 'happiness' 
in the eudaimonistic sense; normally Seneca uses beatitudo for this con- 
cept, though in 124.24 he plays with the terms when he advances the 
paradox that only the most unhappy are truly happy (infelicissimos esse 

The rebuttal in 66.41 rests on the distinction between states of affairs 
that are subject to chance and those that are not. Fortuka admit of wide 
variation in character; what they are like depends on how they are used by 
agents who embrace them (note that sumere is the usual Latin term for 
'selection'). A good agent can use externals well and a bad agent will use 
them badly. See D.L. 7.103 on the Socratic 'use argument' (comparing 
Meno 87C-88e, Euthydemus 28oc-282a) and Annas 1993b, esp. p. 55. But 
goods (that is, states of affairs shaped by virtue) have a single point or 
goal, agreement with Nature. 

'Agreement' is then shown to be another concept, like 'straight', 'flat', 
'true' and so forth, that is absolute and does not admit of degree. In the 
Senate one does not vote for a proposal partially (Roman senators voted 
by indicating agreement with a proposal); every 'yes' vote counts the same 
despite the circumstances which might have influenced it (one can imagine 
that some votes are cast reluctantly, half-heartedly, under compulsion, 
eta, but they still count). Since that is the character of 'agreement', it is 
also true that all virtues agree with nature in the same univocal way; and 
so too all 'goods' (that is, agents and situations characterized by virtue) 
agree with nature equally. 

66.42-3 The example of 'death' is offered as a parallel for the uniformity 
of goods — a deliberately piquant analogy. There is enormous variation in 
the manner and circumstances of death. But the outcome is undeniably 
uniform. Here Seneca allows himself and his readers the pleasure of a 
certain expatiation on the theme of death's equality. Compare NQ_ 6.32. 
When Seneca raises the prospect of dying amidst physical pain and 
deformity (note the arthritic torture of 66.43) we are meant to recall 
Claranus' misfortune, the very dispreferred circumstance which inspired 
the discussion of the letter. For the prospect of intended humour in this 
passage, see Mark Grant 2000: 324. 

LETTER 66 177 

66.44 I n a concluding paragraph Seneca summarizes the similarities 
between death and the good. The image of the path helps to make the 
point that the circumstances are distinct from the virtuous state of the 
agent (path: traveller :: circumstances: agent). 

66.45-8 Having concluded his main argument, Seneca turns to out- 
flanking the Epicureans. The key move is to argue that the Epicurean 
conception of the good (see, e.g., D.L. 10.28) has the same structure as 
does the Stoic conception of the good. The Epicurean theory posits an 
absolute limit to pleasure (removal of all pain) in contrast to the possibility 
of variation which does not, however, increase one's happiness. This is 
meant to be comparable to the Stoic good in contrast to the variable 
circumstances of the indifferents. This argument for the essential simi- 
larity of Epicurean and Stoic axiology is important, since it captures what 
many critics have sensed about the theories and shows how a sense of the 
similarity between the theories might be strengthened misleadingly by 
its emergence from a dialectical situation rather than from a similarity of 
underlying theoretical motivation. 

66.47 Again Seneca invokes the Letter to Idomeneus (cf. above at 66.18) 
to undermine an Epicurean's ability to object to the counter-intuitive 
aspects of the Stoic position. Compare Cicero's translation of this part of 
the Letter to Idomeneus at Fin. 2.96. Seneca's use of the Epicurean letter is 
far more sympathetic than Cicero's and his paraphrase may be compared 
with Cicero's translation in direct discourse. I thank Austin Busch for the 
observations on this point. 

But we should not forget that there are crucial differences between 
Stoic and Epicurean theory (as the hyperbolic conclusion of this letter 
will emphasize, 66.49-53). These derive from divergent views about 
nature and from the deprecation of the senses which Seneca builds on 
throughout the letter. Further, in 66.47 which deals with Epicurus' 
death-bed pain, Seneca makes it clear that Epicurus does no more than 
passively endure pain, while Mucius Scaevola (66.51-3) actively pursues 
pain in the service of his country. Seneca does not fully develop the 
differences here in 66.45-8, since his argument is aimed at neutralizing 
possible Epicurean objections by co-opting them though concentration 
on similiarites (above Seneca pointedly refrained from using the bull of 
Phalaris against Epicurus). 

But in 66.49-53 tne point is different. Here Seneca goes on the 
offensive to say that he can imagine a case in which he would prefer 


hardship. No Epicurean argument could yield this conclusion since it 
undermines the basic premises of Epicurean moral argument and also 
rejects the ultimate foundation of his theory of virtue (pleasure as the 
basic value). But the Stoic theory is different since there at least can be 
an argument in favour of embracing and valuing physical pain. Perhaps, 
then, this conclusion can be explained in part as a product of temporary 
argumentative zeal rather than as a considered departure from earlier 
Stoic value theory. For an approximation of this view in earlier Stoicism, 
see Musonius Rufus, Discourse 1 section 5; Musonius tells the story of 
a Spartan boy who asked Cleanthes whether pain might not be a good 
rather than a mere indifferent. (Cf D.L. 7. 172, SVF 1.611. Compare 
82.1-2 where Seneca himself expresses a preference for having things go 
badly (mak) in a conventional sense than softly (molliter); also Prov. 4, 
Const. Sap. 5.4.) 

66.49-53 The final argument of the letter, which turns on the anecdote 
of Mucius Scaevola. Seneca had already dealt with this at 24.5, where it is 
characterized as one of the stock narratives of the rhetorical schools (24.6); 
the story is told in Livy 2. 12-13. This section is just as much an appendix 
as is 66.45-8. Seneca proposes to offer a justification for having a personal 
preference for virtuous actions (goods) in difficult situations like that of 
Claranus over virtuous actions in favourable situations. He is thinking, 
no doubt, of his own situation: a comfortable old age amidst wealth and 
leisure. See also I. Hadot 1969: 1 18-19. 

Several points need to be emphasized. First, the role of Claranus in 
the letter is important to understanding this conclusion. This letter is 
presented to us as an account of discussion with a person whose physical 
torments coexist with good character. Claranus' torments have been 
brought back to the readers' mind at 66.43; ar *d m f act 66.42-4 on death 
also returns our thoughts to the two old men whose discussion is being 
related to Lucilius. It is highly appropriate for Seneca to conclude this 
letter with a line of thought which would have consoled Claranus. Seneca, 
himself not afflicted as Claranus is, obviously concluded his conversation 
with an argument and an example which would remind him of his own 
heroism and the moral value of brave endurance. If there is rhetorical 
excess here, excess which almost violates Stoic doctrine, it is the excess 
characteristic of the consolatory genre. And if there is rhetorical excess, 
we should also bear in mind Seneca's life-long weakness for bold and 
dramatic overstatement. 

LETTER 66 179 

Second, Seneca offers this conclusion tentatively. He asks for permission 
from Lucilius; he marks this as a somewhat bold line of argument; and he 
makes it clear that the point he advances is personal rather than part of 
the inter-school debate he has just concluded. 

Third, the entire line of argument is explicitly counter-factual. The 
verb tenses in 66.49 make that clear and Seneca is emphatic that what he 
is about to say is what he would have said and would have preferred if 
there could be any difference among the goods. 

Nevertheless, although Seneca has been careful to bracket out this 
conclusion so as to maintain orthodoxy on the main point of the letter, it 
remains to be asked whether there is a philosophical (rather than a literary) 
motivation for this undeniably dramatic and excessive conclusion. I think 
there is a philosophical point to be made, and it is meant to be Seneca's 
own (this too is the effect of the bracketing at 66.49). 

His claim is that 'demolishing hardships' is something grander than 
merely managing good fortune, despite the faet that the reason used in 
the two situations is identical, as is the resultant courage of the two 
hypothetical soldiers he considers (66.50). But of the two soldiers, only 
one is hailed by his fellow soldiers for his accomplishments. Seneca says 
that this is why he personally would praise the one more than the other. No 
doubt he has in mind a point with which Aristotle would agree, that there 
ought to be something to be learned from the moral intuitions of one's 
fellow human beings, even if those intuitions are in need of refinement 
and cannot be criterial in ethical debate. So there is some merit in what 
soldiers do when they congratulate the wounded hero. In 66.51 the more 
dramatic (and uncontroversial, for Roman society) example of Mucius 
Scaevola is adduced as one which Seneca cannot help but praise despite 
its gruesome and self-destructive character. 

In 66.52 Seneca goes so far as to say that he might want to reclassify 
Mucius' case (which ought to be a good of the second category) into 
the first category, the ones which one would want even in unconstrained 
circumstances. (This would not, of course, make it a greater good, but 
would make it more choiceworthy — which is the main point of the claim 
at 66.49 that he 'would have preferred' the harsher option. Perhaps the 
references to greater goods mean no more than this in the end.) The 
objector (Lucilius, rather than the anonymous of 66.40) is naturally 
incredulous that such a painful good would be chosen. In reply Seneca 
asks which he should choose if he had to choose between Mucius' 
circumstances and the pampered situation of a wealthy noble getting a 


manicure in his boudoir (the corruption of an aristocratic lifestyle is nicely 

'Such a deed cannot be done by anyone who cannot also wish for it.' It 
is not clear whether this is hyperbole or a principle of moral psychology 
which Seneca would maintain consistently. If the latter, then it seems 
dubious or vacuous. If Seneca claims that someone who will do x in 
given circumstances must be such as to be able to wish to do it in those 
same circumstances, then it is vacuous. But if his claim is that someone 
who will do x in given circumstances must be such as to wish to do it 
regardless of circumstances or such as to wish for the circumstances in 
which the doing of this action is what he would wish, then his claim is both 
implausible (no reason being offered in support of it) and unnecessary 
to the larger case he wishes to argue. I am inclined, then, to take this as 

To see how this passage is meant to address the issue at hånd, we 
must assume that the hypothetical Seneca choosing between the two 
situations is a good man (otherwise we would not be discussing the 
issue at hånd, goodness in the context of favourable or unfavourable 
circumstances). In the manicure situation, several signs point to an 
unnatural context: sexually dissolute adult males ('sex toys') or eunuchs 
are imagined as manipulating the nobleman's hånds and there is no 
social function for the activity. In the Mucius scenario there is such a 
function — the salvation of the homeland, one of the 'primary goods' 
at 66.5 — and language which suggests restitution of natural order 
('he restored to integrity everything which had gone astray'). Seneca's 
point, then, is that if forced to choose between these two scenarios 
he would not hesitate to choose the Mucius scenario. The philosoph- 
ical reason for this seems to rest primarily on the positive valuation 
of social intuitions (66.50 above), but also to rely on features of the 
two scenarios which characterize the one as natural and the other as 
unnatural. Despite the assumed equal merit of the agent, there would 
be (if possible) a greater good in aligning oneself with nature; certain- 
ly the unpleasant situation would be one more worth choosing in the 

The conclusion to the letter is consistent with mainstream Stoic theory 
and with the rest of the letter. But it is nevertheless an extravagance 
provoked and justified primarily by the situation of the letter as a report 
of the discussion with the unfortunate Claranus. 

LETTER 66 l8l 

66.53 'previous errors'. Among other things, an allusion to the faet that 
Mucius was captured only after he had failed to assassinate the enemy 
king because he couldn't recognize him and killed the wrong man. 

'conquered two kings'. One was the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna, so 
impressed by Scaevola's courage that he left Rome in peace, and the other 
(probably) Tarquin the Proud, the expelled Etruscan king of Rome whom 
Porsenna supported. 

(LETTERS 71 AND 76) 

Following on the themes of 66, 71 is the first of a trio of letters dealing 
explicitly with Stoic value theory (71, 74, 76). Several themes dominate: 
the difference between good and bad on the one hånd and indifferents 
on the other; the equality of all goods; and the sufficiency of virtue for 
happiness. Due to limitations of space, 74 is not translated or discussed 
in detail in this collection. Where relevant, 74 will be invoked in the 
discussion of 71 and 76. On the grouping of letters 71 through 76 see 
Cancik 1967: 16-35, es P- 2 7> an d Maurach 1970: 147-65, esp. 152 (where 
heemphasizes the close linkage of 71 to 66), 156, and 160-1 whichconfirm 
the interconnections of 71, 74, and 76. On 71 itself see also Hengelbrock 
2000: 57-76. Despite a number of useful observations, Hengelbrock's 
analysis is limited by his narrow focus on the problem of prokope and 
his readiness to conclude that the letter is 'not grounded in theory' and 
persuasive primarily due to its steadfast repetition and rhetorical slickness 
(75). A philosophically charitable reading, however, reveals arguments of 
considerable interest. 

One interesting feature of 74 is its uncharacteristic emphasis on the 
value oibelieving in the central axiological theses rather than proving them 
(though there is a significant amount of argument in the letter, exhortation 
is commoner); this is signalled in 74.1, 'the most important means to the 
attainment of the happy life is the conviction (persuasio) that the only good 
is what is honourable.' Taken on its own this might suggest that Seneca 
is interested primarily in the benefits of coming to hold Stoic beliefs and 
less in the proofs for those beliefs. 76 will provide a corrective for this; 
at 76.7 Seneca registers Lucilius' dissatisfaction with earlier treatments of 
the claim that only the honourable is good (the claim is merely 'approved' 
and not properly proven) and this refers primarily to 74; at 76.26 Seneca 
refers back to a single letter, which must be 74. 71 focusses more on the 
equality of all goods (following very closely on 66), but Seneca may also 
have it in mind to some extent in his complaint at 76.7. 

LETTER 71 183 

Commentary on 71 

Thematic division 







Advice and the value of having a 'goaP of life. 

The Stoic goal (highest good): the honourable. 

Defence of the Stoic position against the criticism of being 


The example of Cato when the Civil War was lost. 

Cosmological considerations and transience. 

Implications of this for whole-life planning. 

The equality of all goods. 

Raising the ante — on the offensive against common sense. 

The natural limitations of human beings. 

Progress towards wisdom. 

Closing exhortation. 

71. 1-3 An apparently casual opening (Lucilius is in Sicily) disguises an 
important point about practical reasoning and moral deliberation. Advice 
on matters of moral or practical significance (not sharply separable for 
most ancient philosophers) is focussed on particular situations, delimited 
by time and place. Together these make up the 'circumstances' Seneca 
refers to, but his main emphasis here is on temporal specificity. This is 
linked to Seneca's recurrent emphasis on the mutability of human affairs 
(cf. the Heraclitean remarks in 65); here the words for 'flux' are feruntur, 
volvuntur. Cosmological perspectives are invoked again at 71 . 12- 16 below. 
See also Seneca's remarks on the specificity of practical advice at 70.11; 
compare also 22.1. 

But practical advice, though highly specific, will not be unstructured. 
71.2-3 balances the emphasis on particularity with a statement of a central 
claim of ancient eudaimonism, that having a single goal for one's life is 
a necessary condition for success. Stoics put particular emphasis on the 
claim that the goal {telos) is that by reference to which or for the sake of 
which we decide what to do and what to choose (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.46.5-10; 
2.76.21-3; 2.77. 16-19). Seneca takes up this theme again quite forcefully 
at 95.43-6. The examples used here in 71.2-3 are interesting. The painter 
example suggests that the telos to which we refer all choices and decisions 
is rather like the Piatonic paradigm to which an artisan looks (58.19-21; cf. 
65.7-9, 65-13)- In faet, practical reason is understood as a techrie tou biou. 
The example of sailing is a cliché in the tradition as well (it is repeated 
at 95.45). Finally, the language of targets and archery is traditional. For 


just one example of the idea in Plato, see skopos at Gorgias 507CI6. In a text 
central to the eudaimonistic tradition in ancient moral theory, EN 1.1, 
Aristotle argued that there is a single goal (telos) in practical affairs and 
that knowing that goal has a major impact on our ability to live our lives 
successfully, like archers with a target (skopos) to aim at (see esp. 1094a 
22-4). The image was also exploited by Panaetius (fr. 109 van Straaten 
= Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.63.24-64.12); see also Ecl. 2.47.8-10 and Cicero, De 
Finibus 3.22. A general account of the idea of a target in Stoicism can be 
found in Alpers-Golz 1976; see also Inwood 1986. The use of the archer 
image here is not identical to any of the others. 

Whether or not Seneca was thinking directly of the Piatonic or Aris- 
totelian passages, he will certainly have had in mind Cicero, De Finibus 
3.22, where the example of an archer or spear-thrower is used to explain 
how Stoic eudaimonism is meant to work: our ultimate goal in life is to 
be a virtuous person, which involves a series of immediate aims to achieve 
preferred indifferents in the manner appropriate to a virtuous person; 
that means that one may achieve the overall goal even while failing with 
respect to the immediate aim, yet the immediate aim would be mean- 
ingless except in the context of the larger project of living a successful 

There is a rich literature on this aspect of Stoic ethics; the best starting 
point is Striker 1986, although Long 1967 is still indispensable. Basic texts 
and discussion at LS 63-4. 

'purpose' translates propositum, behind which lies the Greek term 
prokeimenon. See also 65.4-10, 66.36, 66.41, 85.32, 95.46, 122.5. 

Similarly, note at the end of 71.2 the part/whole distinction as fun- 
damental to the eudaimonistic critique of normal human failings — most 
people fail to think about their lives as a whole, concentrating instead 
on various partial perspectives. This idea is highlighted by Annas 1993«: 
chapter 1, 'Making Sense of My Life as a Whole'. 

71.3 emphasizes how chance gains power in human life through our own 
failure to have a single point of reference. It is the failure of our planning 
which leaves us open to variability and the blows of fortune. Hence the 
focus on 'chance' and 'fortune' in Seneca is readily connected to some 
central themes of eudaimonism. His constant emphasis on fortune as an 
external and disruptive force, an enemy to reason, follows plausibly from 
the faet that contingencies only gain power over our lives if we fail to take 
control of them by planning with an eye to our overall goal in life. 

LETTER 71 185 

71.4 'many words or a roundabout path'. At Republic 506de Socrates 
declines to give a direct account of the good, saying that it would be too 
lengthy a job to give even a statement of his own view {ir\iov yåg fxoi 
(paiverai rj Karå rrjv iraQovaav oQfi-qv hpu<éo"&a.i tov ye åoKOWTOS i(j.ol 
rå vvv). That an explication of the good is a long and roundabout path is a 
reminiscence of Socrates' remarks at Republic 504cd. Seneca's Stoic view 
is that the idea of the good requires no transcendent metaphysical claims 
of a Piatonic sort. Nevertheless, as other letters indicate (see especially 
120), Seneca is well aware that the full Stoic theory of the good is far from 

71.4-5 After situating his views within a general eudaimonistic frame- 
work, Seneca turns to the distinctively Stoic view. The telos is identified 
as the honourable and nothing else, but first an epistemological question 
is addressed. We have within us the idea of the honourable as the (highest 
and only) good, but we often do not know it. This does not commit Seneca 
to the existence of innate concepts, but it does remind us of the central 
importance of prolepseis in Stoic thought. If we have within us the outline 
notion (or a natural conception — see D.L. 7.53) of the good but fail to 
realize its significance in our lives, then part of the way forward for us is to 
develop a kind of self-knowledge and part of it is to find a way to exploit 
the latent moral intuitions we have. Thematically this recalls above all the 
idea of recollection in the Meno, a dialogue which also invokes the idea of 
'scattering' or fragmenting virtue, the telos. (At Meno 77a Socrates tweaks 
Meno with breaking virtue up into pieces, a passage which remained basic 
to the debate about the unity of virtues.) 

The Stoic theses about the good (the honourable is the highest good 
or the only good) are the topic of several letters (74 and 76, see esp. 
76.7) and arguments. The 'false goods' here are preferred indifferents 
(commoda). Note that virtue is said to 'convert' not just preferred things 
but also dispreferred things into goods. This is essentially the point 
made in 66, that the way circumstances are håndled is the real locus of 

71.5 'just loving it is not enough'. 'Fall passionately in love with' 
translates adamare; merely 'loving' it is the simple verb amare. Seneca is 
straining to emphasize the strength of commitment which virtue requires. 

71.5 On rising above externals, cf. 66.6, Const. Sap. 6.3, 1.1, etc. 


71.5 'In its own right'. The word order in Latin allows an uncertainty 
about whether Seneca means 'everything which is, in its own right, 
inconvenient will be labelled good ... 'or 'everything which is inconvenient 
will in its own right be labelled good . . . ' . My translation is meant to capture 
this ambiguity. I owe the suggested word order to Marta Jimenez. 

71.6-7 Here Seneca defends the Stoic position against the traditional 
objection that it makes inhuman demands on us. The objection is partly 
grounded in unreflective intuitions and partly in a disagreement about 
human nature. In Fin. 4 the Peripatetic spokesman for Antiochus' Old 
Academy charges Stoic theory with treating humans, who are a compound 
of mind and body, as though they were pure minds. See esp. Fin. 4.28 
'The only circumstance in which it would be correct to make the supreme 
good consist solely in virtue would be if our animal which has nothing but 
a mind also had nothing connected with its mind that was in accordance 
with nature: for example, health' (trans. Woolf). In a very important sense 
Seneca is conceding the underlying assumption behind this criticism, 
for he does hold that the goods of the human being are fundamentally 
goods of the mind — virtue is perfected reason and reason is an attribute 
of the mind. Furthermore, Seneca asserts quite plainly here that it is by 
measuring people by the standard of god that we can see their true nature 
and so understand their genuine good. When he invites his opponents 
to focus their attention on the mind and its attributes, he is claiming, in 
effect, that if one has the correct view of what the mind is one will see that 
its connection to the divine is fundamental to its nature. 

The disagreement, then, is in part a disagreement about philosophical 
anthropology. If humans and gods are essentially rational animals and if 
human reason when perfected is godlike, then human good and divine 
good are not essentially different. And if happiness is to consist in the 
attainment of the distinctive good of one's kind, then it is incumbent 
on Stoics to defend the view that the goods of reason are necessary and 
sufficient for happiness. In this letter, though, Seneca does not hide behind 
theological assertions, but as in 66 and elsewhere he turns his hånd to the 
task essential for the defence of Stoic ethics, argument about the role of 
preferred and dispreferred indifferents in a happy life. 

The dismissal in 71.6 of overly technical philosophical debate (noticed 
with a wry grimace by Barnes 1997: 1 3) is a reference back to 58 and 65, each 
of which addressed the difference between important and unimportant 
questions. On the significance of syllables, see 58.7 and the references 

LETTER 71 187 

71.6 'human nature' renders humana condicio. See also Tuse. 3.34, where 
condicio reflects the terms under which people live (cf. 'Natural Law in 
Seneca', ch. 8 of Inwood 2005); here the emphasis is more on the actual 
capacities of people, but the circumstances of life and terms under which 
we live are also being alluded to. 

'grammar-school philosophers'. The ludus litterarius is an elementary 
school, where basic reading and writing are taught. The imputation is 
that overly technical philosophers are dealing with low-level matters on 
which the really important issues depend but which they transcend. This 
criticism pro vides important evidence about Seneca's attitude to technical 
philosophy; it is not dismissed, but merely put in its place. 

71.7 The argument here is simple. Happiness requires the good and 
the good consists in the honourable. But the honourable is equal in all 
instances, so the good is too (see 66 and 113. 16). Happiness consists not 
just in having the good, but in understanding that one has it and using that 
understanding in one's life. Hence happiness requires that you understand 
the equality of all goods and treat them accordingly in all instances. More 
difficult are the striking claims attributed to Socrates in this section. See 

The remarks about Socrates' focus on ethics are a commonplace. See, 
e.g., Tuse. 5.10, Rep.i.i$—i6 (cf. Leg. 1.56). The tradition begins with 
Aristotle's remarks in Metaphysics 1, 987b! -2, reflecting no doubt his 
understanding of Socrates' 'intellectual autobiography' in the Phaedo. 
The exhortation attributed to Socrates is modelled on the conclusion of 
the Gorgias (427cd). 

See Abel 1980: 499-500, and Måltese 1986. Abel argues that the parallel 
with Gorgias warrants emendation of Mos to illo and of ut to ubi. He is 
followed without argument by Hengelbrock 2000: 60, n. 14), but Måltese 
had shown that this emendation is not necessary. 

After claiming that the highest wisdom consists in sorting out the 
distinction between good and bad things (which includes learning to 
distinguish the indifferents from good and bad things), 'Socrates' urges 
us to 'follow them' . This might be taken as a reference to 'ethics,' on 
the grounds that the nearest antecedent for the pronoun 'them' would 
be mores; but Gummere in the Loeb overtranslates when he renders 
it 'follow these ruies'. Further, the recommendation to 'follow mores' 
would be impossibly general in its meaning. More likely, then, the word 
'them' refers to people who would be exemplars for conduct or (following 
Måltese) to the pioneering moral philosophers who originally discovered 


sound doctrines (tilis qui invenerunt ista: 'those who discovered those 
things'); compare the anecdote about Zeno being urged to follow Crates 
(D.L. 7.2-3) if he wished to find someone like the person he read about 
in Xenophon's Memorabilia. 

'Socrates' also urges a friend that he allow himself to be thought a fool 
and claims that even if he is mistreated and held in contempt he will come 
to no harm providing he has virtue. The claim of the Crito, Gorgias, and 
Apology that no harm can befall a good person is behind this. But what is 
the point of the claim that if one wants to be happy and genuinely good 
one should permit contempt of oneself? This is a 'Socratic' stance which 
Seneca embraces when he claims that such a position is only possible 
if one has accepted the equality of all goods and has come to regard as 
unimportant everything except the honourable. This seems to mean that 
one must adopt the attitude to externals urged, for example, in 66. 

Seneca seems to be claiming here that being held in contempt is a 
necessary condition for being a genuinely good man. This seems too 
strong and one might hesitate to take it literally. Does he really mean that 
a virtuous man who is held in appropriately high repute by others could 
not be genuinely good? Does he really mean that unfortunate social and 
external circumstances are necessary in order to achieve virtue? 

We recall that at the end of 66 Seneca expressed a tentative preference 
for secondary goods, virtue exercised in unfavourable circumstances. 
Here we seem to have a similar preference for virtue besieged over virtue 
coddled by fortune. The reason for this preference is perhaps hinted at 
in the words bona fide, translated 'genuinely' here but literally 'in good 
faith'. Perhaps we could not have confidence or faith in the goodness of 
a good man if he did not suffer. Perhaps the role of misfortune is to 
help us (and the agent himself) verify that the commitment to virtue is 
genuine, a verification that could not be achieved without being subject 
to trial by misfortune. See also 'Getting to Goodness', ch. 10 of Inwood 
2005, and commentary on 120. Seneca's focus is often on the conditions 
which most reliably foster moral training and on epistemological issues 
associated with moral improvement. He seems to think that misfortune 
serves us well in both respects. We should not conclude from this 
that he wavers in his commitment to the symmetry of standard Stoic 

71.8-11 Two episodes from the life of Cato the Younger are offered 
as illustration. He lost an election for the praetorship to Clodius, though 
eventually he was elected praetor in 54 bc. And in the Civil War he 

LETTER 71 189 

held a command under Pompey at Durrachium during the campaign at 
Pharsalus. After initial success in repulsing Caesar at Durrachium, the 
Pompeian side lost decisively at Pharsalus, a loss which contributed to the 
collapse of the side Cato championed and ultimately led him to commit 
suicide in Africa. Cato notoriously took both setbacks with restraint and 
equanimity. Two comparisons are being made here: that between a minor 
setback (the electoral defeat) and a major setback (the failure of his side 
in a key battle of the Civil War); and the more general contrast between 
success and failure. In 71.8 the latter contrast is highlighted: Cato's 
two situations (success and setback) are equal in value because the same 
virtue is required for appropriate behaviour in both. The virtues of rising 
above (magnitudo animi) and of self-control in favourable circumstances 
(temperantid) are the same. (On Seneca's view of the unity of virtues see 
the commentary on 113. 3-5, 113. 7-8.) In 71. 11 the contrast between 
setbacks of different magnitude is in play; the comparison is not one 
of favourable and unfavourable circumstances, but of greater and lesser 
misfortunes. The central point illustrated by Cato's experience, however, 
is straightforward: if dispreferred situations are all equally not good, then 
they are (with respect to virtue and happiness) the same and Cato in his 
wisdom reacts to them with equal equanimity. 

Cato's death: his playing, see 104.33, hi s reading, see 24.6. He read Plato, 
no doubt the Phaedo. 

71. 9-10 The failure of Pompey's side (to which Cato adhered) in the 
Civil War was seen as the end of genuine republican government at Rome, 
the form of government which Cato represented and for which he was 
willing to die. But despite that, no genuine harm is done to Cato by his 
setbacks: the Socratic doctrine that no harm can be done to a good person 
(Crito, Gorgias, Apology) is presupposed. The phrase 'it was determined 
long ago' (olimprovisum) suggests not just that Cato's immunity was settled 
long ago but that it was providential. The phrasing 'that Cato should suffer 
no harm' is reminiscent of the Senatus consultum ultimum, that the consuls 
should see to it that the state suffer no harm: see Grant 2000: 327. 

71.9 'one battle'. The defeat at Pharsalus. 

'Egypt . . . Africa . . . Spain'. The Pompeian side scattered after the loss at 
Pharsalus and further, final defeats were suffered in these regions. Hence 
Seneca's lament in 71 .9 that the state could not 'collapse only once' (cf. 8.4). 


71.10 Juba: the King of Numidia and adherent of the Pompeian side. 
He fought at Scipio's side in the unsuccessful battle at Thapsus. 

Scipio: Q. Metellus Pius Scipio, the general under whom Cato served 
at Thapsus. Scipio Africanus, one of his ancestors, had won farne as a 
general in Africa. 

71. 12-14 An illustration of how cosmological reflection functions in 
moral assessments. We are invited to compare the significance of political 
change with change at the cosmic level. A well-informed and rational 
person is not surprised or discomfitted by large-scale change and has 
no reason to expect merely human affairs to be any more stable. The 
transience of all things is an orderly transience. The faet that nothing is 
permanent helps us to accept dramatic change in our own lives — it would 
be unreasonable to expect a level of permanence in our lives any greater 
than that in the cosmos. The faet that cosmic changes are orderly is an 
indication that the change is under divine control. The weak point of this 
comparison lies in the possibility that change in the human sphere might 
be less predictable than that at the cosmic level. Seneca argues that at 
the relevant level our lives are just as predictable, but the relevant level is 
apparently very general indeed: the facts about the inevitability of life and 
death. Our mortality is predictable in just the way that the cosmic facts 
are. But other features of our life are in faet quite chaotic by comparison 
with cosmic regularities. Hence Seneca has an argumentative motivation 
to focus on the narrow range of phenomena that deal with life and death 
rather than on other features of our life. To the objector who might hold 
that other issues (chronic pain, poverty, loss of one's family) are actually 
more important to us than life and death, Seneca would no doubt reply 
that if that is so then one can always commit suicide when the balance of 
other factors is not to one's taste. See also 'Natural Law in Seneca', ch. 8 
of Inwood 2005. 

Such cosmological reflection is not rare in Seneca; see, e.g., 36.11 and 
for Zeus' role 9.16. Throughout this part of the letter (71. 12-15) there 
are several general reminiscences of the Natural Questions, 

71.13 see e.g. 36.11, 9.16 on the mutability of the all. 

71.14 The faet that body and mind are distinct within a human being 
helps us to appreciate the lessons to be drawn from cosmology. It is only if 
the mind shifts its attention from the body and considers the longer term 

LETTER 71 191 

(as the body cannot do) that we can appreciate the significance of cosmic 
transience in our lives. See on 66.35. 

Socrates brought philosophy back to ethics from physics (71.7). Here 
Seneca seems to be demonstrating how it is that physics can contribute 
to ethics, thus reintegrating the two branches of philosophy in a manner 
consistent with Stoic thought. Compare 58 and 65 on cosmology and 
related issues. 

71. 15— 16 Here a minor textual issue has a major impact on interpretation 
and I am grateful to Michael Dewar and to Margaret Graver for discussion 
of this problem. The presence of ut here at first sight seems disruptive. The 
line of thought which follows would be highly appropriate if attributed to 
the figure of Cato himself, yet the presence of 'like' {ut) means that there 
must be someone else, for whom Cato is the comparison, to be subject of 
the verb dicet. Gummere in the Loeb introduces a new speaker here, the 
wise person; and a hypothetical wise person is one possible candidate for 
this role. The Bude supposes that god (mentioned in 71.14) is the subject 
of both dicet and percucurrerit, and this would too would make some sense 
in connection with the phrase magnus animo deo pare at in 71.16. But it 
seems peculiar for god to be compared to Cato in this way. Haase suggested 
the deletion of ut as a solution, pointing out that an instance of ut needed 
to be supplied in 71.14 after speraret and arguing that a dislocation of this 
short word seems just as likely as an omission. 

But Reynolds accepts the text as transmitted and this may well be 
right. The subject of dicet and the speaker of what follows is the human 
mind {mens) personified, carried forward from 71.14 or anticipating the 
great mind {animus) of 71.16. The best alternative view would be to 
follow Haase, in which case the speech of 71.15 would be the imagined 
application by Cato of the cosmological reflections of 71. 12-14 to his 
situation in political defeat. The difference between having this speech 
given by an idealized human mind and by Cato is minor for Seneca. Either 
way, in 71.16, Seneca reverts to his own voice and applies the lesson of 
Cato's imagined speech to the issue at hånd, the equality of good (i.e., 
virtue or the honourable) in favourable and unfavourable circumstances. 
Truth has already been used as a model for the invariance of virtue and 
the good (66.8). 

The prospect of the passing away of the whole species makes our own 
death seem less special. What Seneca is doing here is applying to the 
whole-life analysis typical of eudaimonistic ethics the lessons to be learned 
from observing the rational order of the cosmos. Uniform treatment is part 


of the regime imposed by law; evidence about this theme in Seneca, the lex 
mortalitatis, is collected in 'Natural Law in Seneca', ch. 8 of Inwood 2005. 

71.15 'thought its way through life'. 'Life' is the Latin aevum, which 
could also be rendered as 'era' or the long life of the cosmos. The double 
entendre could be deliberate, since there is a deliberate parallel between 
human and cosmic life here. 

71.16 The law-like regularity of god and the operations of the cosmos 
are emphasized here. The two prospects for the 'great mind' after death 
are reminiscent of the two prospects for an afterlife considered by Socrates 
at the end of the Apology. Here the two prospects are a tranquillity 
characteristic of the Isles of the Blest (free of any of the dispreferred features 
of embodied life) or dissolution into the cosmos as mere matter, whereas 
in the Apology the prospects are a dreamless sleep or the pleasures of 
philosophical conversations in the underworld. The subjective significance 
of the two outcomes is the same. On Seneca's view of the afterlife (with a 
comparison to Cicero) see I. Hadot 1969: 91. Compare also 76.25. 

71.16 'mixed again' reading remiscebitur. 

71.16 'complement', håbet suos numeros, lit. 'it has its numbers'. Cf 65.7 
and note ad lo c. 

71.16 Concluding summary. Cato's reasoning as reconstructed illus- 
trates how a virtuous and fair-minded character can treat favourable and 
unfavourable circumstances as the same. So virtue, once one has it, is as 
'big' as it gets. In view of the two possible fates after death, it is clear that 
no diminution in virtue can take place, but also that no worse balance can 
emerge between preferred and dispreferred things in one's experience. 
If one joins the divine, one's afterlife is certainly not marred by the 
incommoda of the body; if one is simply dissolved into cosmic components 
then there is also no loss with regard to cosmic components. Remaining 
alive as a good person, then, is no greater good for Cato than dying as 
a good person. Hence the Stoic conclusion that once a life has virtue it 
is complete. Seneca repeats his point about the equality in invariance of 
truth and virtue. 

71.17 Returns to the theme of the equality of all goods, phrased in 
terms reminiscent of those applied to the case of Claranus (66.5, 66.36). 

LETTER 71 193 

Seneca's concern is that someone might regard virtue in tough times as 
a lesser good (whereas in 66.49-53 ne na cl argued that if anything he 
would regard it as a greater good). Hence he advances a slippery-slope 
argument against his opponents, using the examples of Socrates in prison, 
Cato committing suicide, and Regulus (all used similarly in 67; cf. Cicero 
Off. 1. 19, 3. 99-115). He thus forces on his opponents, dialectically to 
be sure, a hard choice: either admit that sages have been unhappy or 
admit that all goods are equal. An ad hominem argument backs it up: 
even degenerate people would grant that such suffering sages are not 

71.18 The Old Academics are presented as holding a thesis preferable 
to that of the degenerates of 71.17. They concede that a suffering sage is 
happy but not as happy as can be. The issue of whether happiness itself 
(rather than virtue, the good, or the honourable — on which happiness 
depends) admits of degrees is the focus of the debate in Fin. 4-5, with 
the Old Academics taking the view that it can be graduated and the Stoics 
that it cannot. Hence their view 'cannot be accepted'. Seneca's position 
here may seem like a mere assertion that the concept of happiness is a 
limiting case, but in faet it rests on the claim that the highest good is an 
absolute limit in which no variation is possible. The key to the argument 
is the thesis that a condition of our lives would not count as happiness at 
all unless it were in the highest good. 

71.19 The experience of the gifted young men inspired {percussit) by 
great examples (cf. also 71.25, 120.5). Such examples commend 'wisdom' 
to them and this is the source of virtue and happiness. This is an important 
indication of how Seneca supposes exempla to work in moral education. 
Seneca purports to be basing this on experience, and such experience 
requires that at least a provisional notion of the honourable is widely 
accepted as a norm in society, even if it requires later philosophical 
refmement. See commentary on 120 and 'Getting to Goodness', ch. 10 
of Inwood 2005. See 71.5 on falling in love with virtue. The capacity for 
falling in love with virtue is based on our susceptibility to such examples. 

'honourable deed'. Could also be rendered 'honourable circumstance'. 

'ruier'. That is, a straight edge used for measurement. This is an 
illustration of the philosophical refmement that wisdom brings to the 
initial commitment to regarding the honourable as a norm. Straightness is 


introduced as the central concept for this argument and (despite the use 
of the ruier in the argument) it is not a mere metaphor. See also 74.23-8. 

71.19-20 The honourable and a ruier (regula) are both standards for 
other things, and as such neither can be thought of as varying, at least not 
relative to the things for which it is a standard. To reject this comparision 
and its implications for the invariability of the honourable would entail 
either (a) denying that the honourable is that against which indifferents are 
measured; or (b) accepting that a standard can function properly even if it 
varies relative to what it measures (as Aristotle says of the Lesbian ruier 
EN H37b30, though it is a standard in a different sense). Clearly Seneca 
expects neither move to be acceptable. The standard-setting role of the 
honourable is taken for granted, Seneca thinks, even by his opponents, 
who are probably not to be thought of as reflective Epicureans but perhaps 
either as unphilosophical people committed to conventional values or as 
Old Academics. 

71.20 'rigid ... taut'. There is a textual crux here, for which many 
emendations have been proposed. Rather than drastically emending or 
despairing, I prefer to adopt the punctuation of Biicheler. Other possible 
translations would include: 

• 'It is rigid. How could it be made moreso?' 

• 'What could be made more taut than something which is rigid?' 

• 'If it cannot itself be any straighter . . . ' This translation is modelled 
on the Bude. The nec before intendi on which the Bude translation 
depends (rigidari quidem amplius? nec intendi potest. 'Mais gagner du 
moins en rigidité? Elle n'est susceptible non plus de tension') is 
probably a medieval emendation rather than a manuscript variant. 

• ' . . . then neither can any of the things which are straight because of 
it be straighter than the others.' 

71.21 'dinner party . . . rack'. Reminiscent of the discussion in 66. 

'of the same dimensions' translates eiusdem mensurae. Compare 74.26. 
Note again the use of the concept of the raw material (hule, materia) for 
virtue, attributable to Chrysippus (Plutarch, Comm. Not. 1069c = LS 
59A). This is an assertion of Stoic value theory. The value of any situation 
is determined by the presence or absence of virtue in the agent, not by the 
circumstances which are the raw material for the agent's action. 

LETTER 71 195 

71.22 The reply to the aggressive 'common-sense' objection is an ad 
hominem challenge: they are projecting from their own condition and do not 
have an objective basis for their assessment of what is reasonable. Above, 
however, Seneca has argued for a conceptual point. If we admit that virtue 
is a measure then it must have the characteristics of a measure. That kind 
of argument has a broader reach than the inevitably subjective procedure 
of judging values by one's own current inclinations and intuitions. The 
faet that people are affected by the 'inspiration' of exemplary characters 
('inspired by the beauty of an honourable deed' at 71.19; cf. 120.5) i s 
of interest here. The faet that historical exempla have this motivational 
impact is evidence that even non-philosophers have implicit commitments 
to values which conflict with other values we hold explicitly. This 
suggests that the proper role of historical exempla might be to provide a 
counterweight to one's own short-sighted assessments and to expand the 
range of experience that goes into one's thinking about values. 

71.23 The faet that people's failings and limitations are so variable is 
meant to reveal the need for a kanon, but also undercuts any argument 
based solely on experience and common sense. (Is the humour of the 
passage, noted by Grant 2000: 324, intentional?) The present argument 
only works, however, if we rule out a radical relativism of values and 
assume that there is some general truth to be had. Seneca's argument is 
not made vulnerable by this limitation, however, since it seems clear that 
his imagined opponent is not just saying that the Stoic argument does 
not apply to Mm because his intuitions about value are different, but also 
arguing that Stoics are wrong about human nature. See also 71.6, which 
both invokes the limitations of the human condition generally (confirming 
that the opponents are addressing non-relative claims about human values) 
and argues for the inadequacy of judging by the wrong standards (in that 
case the standards of the body). See also 71.27, which argues that the wise 
person is not beyond human nature. 

'awoken at dawn'. See 122. 

71.24 Since variable human experience is not reliable, we have to find 
another basis for our judgements. So we turn to the 'great mind' of the 
exceptional person rather than things which are familiar and variable. The 
idea, perhaps, is that we turn to the exceptional because of its capacity 
for consistency with itself and its cognitive reliability, and so its fitness 
as a standard. This would be a reason for the great man to play a role in 

iq6 commentary 

determining values, especially as no one is thought to disagree with the 
view that such people are admirable. What of the comparison to optical 
illusions? The idea is that one needs an external standard in order to 
correct for the failings of contingent human experience. As reason gives 
us consistent answers about the straightness of the stick, while the senses 
do not, so too the standards set by the mind give us consistent answers 
about values while the senses do not. 

71.25 The idealistic youth of 71.19 is here invoked as an indication that 
this set of opinions is actually held by people thought to be worthy of 
admiration. Here too the youth is impressed by the example of heroic 
figures, and the faet that he is struck in this way is more than an 
illustration of human variability. Is the youth meant to suggest naturalness 
and freedom from social convention? Or not being worn down by life? 
The description of him as 'unspoiled' suggests both; indeed 'uncorrupted' 
might not be too strong for incorruptus and this would make the point even 
stronger. The character admired by such a youth has several admirable 
traits, but its constancy amidst good and bad fortune is taken to be 
an assurance of reliability. Weaker spirits react differently in different 
circumstances and so fail to 'speak' with a consistent voice. 

Hengelbrock (2000: 65) is concerned about Seneca's reliance here on 
non-philosophical concepts to support an ultimately Stoic position. For 
he thinks the 'unspoiled youth' refers on one level to a wise person with 
genuinely uncorrupted intellect and on another to a kind of admirable 
character which is not, however, that of the Stoic sage. This two-level 
interpretation of the example seems implausible; certainly there is nothing 
in Seneca's text to suggest it. It seems more reasonable to suppose that 
Seneca is arguing on the basis of the moral intuitions of an unspoiled youth, 
not treating those intuitions as criterial (as those of the sage would be) 
but rather using them as nothing more than an indication of what is truly 
admirable. This exploitation of common moral intuitions is not unusual 
in Seneca (see on 120) and does not amount to accepting common opinion 
as criterial in ethics. Hengelbrock is concerned about the conflict between 
the method of argument suggested here in 71.25 and Seneca's rejection of 
the 'crowd' as a reliable indicator of moral truth (see Hengelbrock 2000: 
65, n. 40), but Seneca's moral epistemology is more subtle than that. 

71 .26 Again, Seneca contrasts the mind with the circumstances to which 
it reacts. He is interested in the assessment made by the mind of the 
externals and the body which it alone is in a position to judge. If we 

LETTER 71 197 

distinguish the mind from what it judges, then we can use this dualism 
to isolate that aspect of human experience which can be consistent and so 
epistemically reliable and a proper standard. The wise person shows what 
the mind is capable of: it can, in principle, maintain consistency under 
hardships of any sort and under good fortune. The body, by contrast, 
inevitably reacts differently in different circumstances and cannot be relied 
on to maintain a single standard. 

The idea that the only bad aspect of a situation lies in our reaction to it 
is a commonplace in Epictetus and Seneca; see esp. 45.9. 

71.27 Seneca takes up the challenge of 71.6. The dualism of body and 
mind enables us to isolate that part of a human being which can be invariant. 
We also possess the other part (the body) and it has the experiences that 
common sense points to. But it is not criterial because it cannot attain 
consistency. The limits of human nature are fully acknowledged, but 
Seneca's argument is that not all facts about human nature affect the 
nature of virtue and so of happiness. The requirement for consistency 
and invariability is, he seems to think, built in to the concept of virtue 
and so of happiness. That being so, those features of human nature which 
do not measure up to the standard of consistency must be treated as 
extrinsic to the assessment of virtue and happiness. Seneca's recognition 
of an 'irrational part' does not entail acceptance of Piatonic psychological 
dualism. Our body and the features of the soul which are bound to it 
(that is to say, the anima not the animus or mind) admit of an undeniable 
variability; such an unstable feature of our lives should not, on Seneca's 
view, determine our conception of happiness. See I. Hadot 1969: 91-2 
and 'Seneca and Psychological Dualism', ch. 2 of Inwood 2005. 

71.27 'filled out'. Hengelbrock (2000: 67) is needlessly concerned about 
the theoretical implications of this metaphor. The achievement of virtue 
is often referred to with the language of fullness and completeness (it is, 
after all, a perfection); see on 76.10. 

71.28 Seneca here connects the two views of human moral nature 
through an account of moral progress. (See 71.34, 75 passim.) Even the per- 
son who is making maximal moral progress is liable to instability and so can- 
not provide criterial intuitions. (See Stobaeus, Ecl. 5.906. 18-907.5 = SVF 
3.510 = LS 59I for the maximal progressor.) This strengthens Seneca's 
argument, since (he holds) he is able to account for the intuitions invoked 

iq8 commentary 

by his opponents (they are making progress but can also backslide) but they 
cannot on their principles account for the phenomena of exceptional virtue. 

71.28 'bravest efforts'. Or, with the Bude, 'when he has been tested most 
intensely' which points to the theme of O« Providence. 

'loves himself most'. Self-love is, of course, a tendency of all people, but 
the wise person applies his judgements with dispassionate consistency. 
Hence his self-admiration is greatest precisely in circumstances when his 
admiration for others would also be greatest. 

Note that here Seneca regards unfavourable circumstances as desirable 
if they are unavoidably linked to a virtuous action, one which is both 
the proper thing to do (an officium, kathekon) and also a mark of virtue 
(honestum). For other reasons to prefer harsh circumstances, see 66.49-53, 
but here Seneca merely says that the wise person welcomes the opportunity 
for a virtuous action even at the cost of pain, poverty, or other misfortunes. 
Consistently with his commitment to Stoic value theory, he prefers 
goodness (being 'better') to good fortune (being ^uckicr', fe licior). 

'slippery ground' in lubrico. See also 1 16.6, where Seneca, who consistently 
portrays himself as a mere progressor, declares his intention to avoid 
situations (such as love) in which the 'ground' is slippery. 

7 1 .29- 3 1 The account of moral progress accommodates the observations 
of those who point to experience and common sense and so continues the 
response to the challenge of 71.6. The moral limitations of aspirants to 
wisdom do not count as evidence against the Stoic conception of goodness; 
they merely show that those who are not wise yet do not yet have all the 
attributes of wisdom. Cf. also 75.14. 

'tremble and feel pain and grow pale'. The translation 'feel pain' was 
suggested by Kara Richardson. For this acknowledgement of the physical 
sufferings of a sage, see De Ira 2.1-2 and 'Seneca and Psychological 
Dualism', ch. 2 of Inwood 2005. Compare also Gellius Noctes Atticae 19. 1 
and discussion by R. Sorabji 2000, esp. chs. 4 and 24. See also Graver 
1999: 300-25 and Stoicism and Emotion (forthcoming), ch. 4. This pas- 
sage further confirms that Seneca's dualism is that of body versus mind, 
modelled on the Phaedo, rather than a division internal to the soul as is 
envisaged in Republic 4. 

The badness of any given situation lies in the mind (i.e., in vice 
or its participants). The negative features outside the mind are merely 

LETTER 71 199 

dispreferred, but Seneca is adamant that Stoics do not deny the reality 
of such negative features and merely locate them properly in the part of 
ourselves which is not intrinsically human. For our rational unshakability 
cf. 45.9 which emphasizes that only our reason is relevant to our assessment 
as human beings. For the Stoic acceptance of our bodily vulnerabilities 
see also 74.31, 1. Hadot 1969: 133. 

71.31 See Republic 429de for the image of dyeing wool used to illustrate 
character formation. 

71.32-3 Virtue is portrayed as a judgement (iudicium) which is stable and 
transparent about what is good. See 66.32, 75.11, 76.10, 95.57. Judgement 
is a mental capacity or faculty and not an individual mental aet. Since 
virtue is a state of the human mind, the basic Stoic account of the mind 
as the receiver and judge of presentations and as the generator of actions 
via impulses (see Inwood 1985: ch. 3) dictates that the cognitive and 
practical outcomes of virtue (that is, perceptions and actions) will share 
its attributes. On judgement here, see 'Moral Judgement in Seneca', ch. 7 
of Inwood 2005 and I. Hadot 1969: 104. 

71.33 The main contrast here is between what is good for the body and 
what is good over all (in totum). This aligns with the dualism of body and 
mind once one recalls that it is inevitably the mind which is able to make 
judgements for the whole person (both body and mind) over its whole life. 
For 'good overall' cf. also 124.13 on the 'genuine good'. 

'certain kind of value'. The term for value is pretium, reward or price. 
'excellence' renders the Latin dignitas. The two kinds of value (selective 
value and the value of genuine benefit) are designated by two different 
terms. Cf. Inwood 1985: 183-4, 197-201, and (among other texts) 
Stobaeus, Ed. 2.83-4. Unlike 'true' value, things with merely selective 
value, the indifferents, admit of widely varying degrees. See also Const. 
Sap. 5.4 for the equality of all goods. 

71.34-5 Seneca here remarks on the variations among people making 
different degrees of moral progress. Just as the invariance of virtue (true 
value) means that all wise people are equally good and happy, so the 
variability of indifferents means that progressors will vary in their level of 
moral progress (which is one of the preferred indifferents: D.L. 7.106). 
On the instability of moral progress, see above on 71.28 'slippery ground'. 


71.34 'eyes . . . downcast when stunned by excessive brightness'. See PI. 
R. 514-17, esp. 515c and Cic. Rep. 6.19; Hengelbrock 2000: 72. 

The variability of moral progress makes an excellent transition to the 
closing exhortation of the letter. 

71.36-7 The closing exhortation emphasizes (a) the attainability of 
virtue, (b) the need for constant effort to make such progress, and (c) the 
necessity of the main doctrine of this letter, which is the indifference of 
external things to our happiness. The role of the passions (less integral to 
this letter) is also included here. 

'want it with my whole mind'. For the relationship of this to ideas about 
the 'wilP in Seneca, see 'The Will in Seneca', ch. 5 of Inwood 2005, and 
the inconclusive remarks of Hengelbrock 2000: 73-4. 

71.36 Tife at last becomes a benefit'. This emphasizes that the good is 
'benefit or not other than benefit'; see SVF 3.75-6 (S.E. M 11.22, D.L. 
7.94). See also 66.21, 117.27. 

71.36 'belong to ourselves'. For this theme, a common expression in 
Seneca for an ideal of personal control and responsibility for our lives, 
their management and their improvement, see also 1.1 vindica te tibi. 20.1, 
32.4, 42.8,10, 49.3, 62.1, 71.36, 75.18, 98.2, Brev. Vit. 2.4. 

Commentary on 76 

Thematic division 

1-6: Age and philosophy, an introductory protreptic. 
7- 1 1: Goodness is tied to the nature and function of each entity. 

Man's unique function is reason. 
12-15: The uniqueness of man's good is supported. 
16-19: Virtue, reason, and the honourable. 
20- 1 : Arguments from examples. 

22-4: Conceptual arguments (from stability, piety, temperance). 
25: The afterlife. 

26: Conceptual argument from animals. 
26-30: Argument from our behaviour and values, consistently 

LETTER 76 201 

I 3 - 3 : The external vs the internal as a sign of true wisdom. 

Hardship as a test which reveals character. 
34-5: Conclusion — the wise person anticipates the worst. 

For general discussion see Cancik 1967: 18-22 (though her sharp contrast 
between descriptive and prescriptive argument forms is not compelling) 
and Maurach 1970: 160-5. 

For the connections between 71, 74, and 76 see p.182. Particularly 
important sections from 74 include: 

74.14 If externals are goods then the gods lack them. This would mean 
that humans are happier than god since we can enjoy more goods. 

74.15 If externals are goods then animals share (at least some of) them. 
This would mean that animals can enjoy goods and hence be happy. 

74.16-18 The nature of the preferred indifferents is defined. 

74.20-1 The alignment of reason and god. 

76.1-6 The letter opens with a protreptic about age and learning, 
justifying the pursuit of philosophical education even in old age. The 
theme (especially with the reference to mockery at 76.4) is reminiscent of 
Callicles' attack on Socrates at Gorgias 48sd (see Dodds 1966 on 48sd7) 
for spending his time in old age discussing philosophy with young boys 
instead of attending to the business of adults. Compare also Epicurus' 
Letter to Menoeceus in D.L. 10.122. This introduction ends with the claim 
that the work involved in doing philosophy is worthwhile because wisdom 
brings virtue and virtue brings every good thing. That is because virtue is 
the honourable and that is the only good. Hence the theme: only the good 
is honourable. This too is an argument against an Old Academic thesis, 
that there are three kinds of goods (tria genera bonorum), those of the soul, 
those of the body, and external goods. See Cicero, De Finibus 4-5. 

76.3 'maxim'. For the recommendation of Solon that one must learn as 
long as one lives, see Plu. Sol. 31.7.3; PI. R. 536di-2, Amat. 133C6, La. 
i89a5 (and the scholia thereto). The appropriateness of philosophy even 
in old age is also an Epicurean doctrine (D.L. 10.122 Letter to Menoeceus). 
See also Brev. Vit. 7.3. The rationale for studying even in old age which 
Seneca offers here (that we are still relevantly ignorant and so need to keep 
on learning) is no doubt implicit in Solon's maxim; I know of no other 
text that spells it out in so many words. 


76.4 'Metronax' is also mentioned at 93.1. It is striking that Seneca 
mentions passing the Neapolitan theatre on the way to the school and 
makes disparaging remarks about the performances and audiences there. 
For the suggestion that Nero was performing in this theatre at the time 
and so would have been the tacit target of these jibes, see Griffin 1992: 
360 and Suet. Nero 20. 

76.5 'don't get into my situation' suggests that Lucilius is significantly 
younger than Seneca, an exaggeration of their age difference according to 
Griffin 1992: 91, n. 4. 

76.5-6 The motivation for, effort required for, and rewards of doing 
philosophy. The incentives for studying philosophy are håndled with a 
matter-of-factness that might appeal to a serious non-philosopher. The 
effort required is considerable but the rewards are even greater — hence 
the project is worthwhile even if viewed from the outside, as it were. The 
difference between a philosopher's view of what is good and the view of 
other people is underlined by the contrast between the theatre and the 
school in 76.4. The claim that only the honourable is good sets up the 
contrast between ordinary and philosophical values, described Platonically 
as a contrast between false and counterfeit values and genuine values. In 
the second century bc, a time of renewed debate among Stoics, Platonists, 
and Peripatetics (as witnessed by the career of Critolaus), Antipater wrote 
a book arguing That according to Plato only the honourable is good (SVF 3. 
Antipater 56). This was an attempt to align Plato with the Stoics against 
the Peripatetics on the topic of the nature of the good, an effort which 
Seneca is still making two centuries later. In De Finibus 4-5 Cicero makes 
a Peripatetic rather than a Platonist the spokesman for the idea that bodily 
and external 'goods' are good. 

76.4 'topic of discussion' represents quaeritur. That is, there is a quaestio 
or formal philosophical discussion about the nature of the good man, as 
is confirmed by discitur. The importance of quaestiones in school activity 
is also reflected at 106.2, 113. 1, and 121. 1. The competitive aesthetic 
judgement about pipers is trivial by comparison. 

76.7 'earlier letter'. This refers first and foremost to 74 but also to 71 
(see esp. 71.4); see Maurach 1970: 161. The 'condensation' promised here 
consists in a more pointed argumentative formulation of the same point. 
On 'prove' and 'approve of ' (probare, laudare) see also 87.4. 

LETTER 76 203 

76.7- 1 1 For the rest of the letter we will need to distinguish, as 
Seneca eventually does, between species-relative good and absolute good. 
Species-relative good is the good as dermed solely with reference to the 
natural function and attributes of a particular natural kind. The absolute 
good is what is good without consideration of a particular natural kind. 
The arguments used to show that the species-relative good of humans is 
privileged are considerably weaker than those which demonstrate that there 
is such a thing as species-relative good. The absolute goodness of reason 
is a doctrine going back to Zeno (S.E. M. 9.109). See also 124. 13-15. 

In 76. 1 o- 1 1 there is a strong emphasis on the species-relative good of 
humans. There seems to be only one unique trait, reason, so that is the 
only good of human beings. It is also central to our judgements of people 
(at the end of 76.8 the species-relative good is said to be that by which 
each kind is judged and in 76.11 it is asserted correctly that people are 
praised and blamed with respect to their distinctive good). Cf 41, esp. 
41.6-8 where the examples of the lion and the vine also occur alongside 
other parallels to this letter. 

76.8 Goodness is relative to a kind. The function argument which was 
first elaborated in the dialectical context of Rep. 1 (352d~354a) lies behind 
all later appeals in the ancient philosophical tradition to the 'function' 
(ergon, or work) of something in order to determine its good. There (352e) 
Socrates describes the function of anything as 'that which one can do only 
with it or best with it' (trans. Grube-Reeve) and the concept is used of ani- 
mals (horse), organs (eyes and ears) and tools. Though animals and organs 
are natural and tools are artefacts, the first definition of the function is cast 
in terms of the use which can be made of something by a distinct purposive 
agent. At 353a, however, the thing itself is cast as the agent: 'the function of 
each thing is what it alone can do [or produce, accomplish] or what it does 
better than anything else'. The excellence (virtue) of something is then 
(353c) stipulated to be that by means of which it carries out its own function 
well. When this is applied to the soul (as something with the natural func- 
tions of living and deliberating rationally), Socrates concludes — though 
far too rapidly and perhaps unconvincingly — that a happy life is the result 
of having a virtuous soul and living in accordance with it. 

In EN 1.7 (i097b22 ff) a similar set of concepts is deployed by Aristotle 
to aid in specifying what 'the best' is for humans. To do so he must argue 
that there is a function for humans; a famously debatable line of argument 
is used. He then stipulates that the good for something is determined by 
its 'proper' function, the function which it alone has. The result is that all 


functions shared with other animals will not count as the proper human 
function for the purpose of determining human excellence and a happy life. 
In these arguments (whatever their value in our eyes) Plato and Aristotle 
lay down terms of discussion which become widely accepted in later ancient 
ethical debate; the Stoics certainly share them and we see this in Seneca's 
discussions of the good here and elsewhere (especially 124). In this context, 
then, the good is to be understood in the following sense. What is good 
for a particular kind of thing consists in carrying out well its characteristic 
function (what it alone can do or what it can do best). The good in this 
sense is species-relative. 

76.8 'Everything depends (constat) on its own good'. Constat is a difficult 
term to translate. 'Consists in' or 'rely on' could also be appropriate 
translations. The idea clearly is that each kind of thing is evaluated for 
excellence with reference to its functionally defined species-relative good. 
Most of the examples presuppose Utility to a purposive human exploiter; 
this is the case for vines, beasts of burden, and dogs, but not for stags 
(unless their speed commends them to us as entertaining objects of the 
hunt). Seneca is no more concerned for any intrinsic functions of animals 
and piants than was Plato when using the example of the horse in Republic 
1. Seneca explicitly claims that these functions are that for which these 
animals were born. Such an anthropocentric view of other species is a 
familiar Stoic perspective (see Clem. Al. Strom. VII 6.33.3 = SVF 1.516 
and De Finibus 5.38 = SVF 2.723, e.g.). 

'ought to be its best'. Compare the use of to ariston by Aristotle at 
EN io97b22. 

76.9- 1 1 'human being'. Seneca here uses the generic word for humans, 
homo, rather than the marked masculine term vir. Nevertheless, his 
examples of human excellence in this passage (as often elsewhere) are 
strikingly gendered. This is particularly obvious when the beauty of the 
peacock and the strength of the bull, for example, are offered as analogues 
to human excellence. 

76.9 Seneca argues that what is best (the highest good) in humans can 
only be something distinctive. This focus on uniqueness of the good is 
part of the Piatonic and Aristotelian tradition. Seneca's claim here is that 
despite any other excellences people may have, only one is unique, reason. 
In others humans may well be outdone by other species, but even if they 

LETTER 76 205 

are not outdone the traits are shared. Strictly speaking, however, reason is 
not a unique or proper trait, since it is shared by the gods. The willingness 
to group humans with god(s) is also part of the Piatonic and Aristotelian 
tradition, though it is worth noting that the Greek tradition generally 
assumes a basic sameness of kind between gods and humans. Seneca never 
challenges this and so essentially begs the question of the homogeneity and 
kinship of humans with god(s). Since, however, even Epicureans would 
grant this point Seneca's assumption does no dialectical harm. A further 
reason for holding that any trait shared by humans and animals cannot be 
good is given at 76.26 below. 

'surpasses the animals and follows the gods'. The hierarchy of value 
implicit in this claim is discussed in Inwood 1985: ch. 2. 

'impulse and voluntary motion'. See Inwood 1985: ch. 2. 

76.10 As in Plato and Aristotle, the functionally determined good of 
humans determines what counts as their happiness. Reason is 'proper' 
to humans only on the assumption that it is legitimate to group humans 
with gods. The claim that animals do not share in reason is of course 
controversial in the ancient world. See Sorabji 1993. For happiness to be 
achieved, though, our reason must be perfected ('straight and complete'); 
for this theme in Seneca see I. Hadot 1969: 100- 1. This condition is 
also derived from the discussion in EN 1.7 but the requirement that 
reason be perfected rather than merely excellent points firmly towards 
a condition more familiar from the Piatonic tradition (the godlikeness 
of human excellence), though it is also part of Aristotle's account in 
EN 10. 

'filled out'. This word recalls the notion of 'filling out' used elsewhere in 
Stoic descriptions of the perfected or happy life: S.E. M. 1 1.30; Stobaeus, 
Ecl. 2.72.5, Plu. Comtn. Not. 1060c; also 71.27. The use of the term by 
Critolaus the Peripatetic (see Cl. Strom. 2.21) in his debate against the 
Stoics about the nature of happiness may well reflect the Stoic use of the 
idea. Critolaus' claim was that a completely happy life was 'filled out' by 
means of all three kinds of good. 

'praiseworthy'. This emphasizes that the characteristic function is also 
the basis for evaluation and assessment. 


'goal of his own nature'. The use of the termfinis (goal) here is a reminder 
that Cicero's De Finibus forms part of the context for Seneca's approach 
to the basic questions of eudaimonistic ethics. 

Note too that perfected reason is equated with virtue and virtue with 
the honourable. The basis for this is that virtue is equivalent to excellence 
and anything perfected is an excellence of that thing. But the equivalence 
of excellence with the honourable relies on a (to us) distinct sense of 
virtue, according to which it is not just an excellence in its own kind but 
is a praiseworthy trait of character. Clearly we would want to distinguish 
between virtue as a praiseworthy character trait and the less restricted 
notion of excellence in carrying out one's natural function (reason, in 
the case of humans). What Seneca needs to explain is how praiseworthy 
character traits relate to our natural function. No doubt he believes that 
he could do so, though we might disagree; but we do well to recall that the 
same blurring of senses of arete (virtue) is committed by Plato at the end 
of Republic i. 

76.11 'no other [unique trait]'. The Latin here is vague: si nullum aliud 
est hominis quam ratio. If one followed the Bude translation one would 
render this 'if there is no other [good] of humans except reason'; the Loeb 
translation has 'if there is no other [attribute] which belongs peculiarly to 
man except reason.' 

On the Bude interpretation the argument is as follows: It would be a 
reasonable conclusion from the review of specific goods in 76.8-9 that no 
other species has reason as a good and that humans are not best at anything 
else. 76.10 asserts on this basis that reason is our 'proper' good. The 
conclusion, then, is that humans have no good except their proper good 
and no good except that at which they can be best. The presupposition 
must be that any trait at which we can be bested by other species cannot 
really be 'good' in us. The inference in 76.11 turns out to be banal, that if 
there is no good in man except reason then reason must be his only good; 
the real work is being done by the presupposition at play in 76.10. 

The Loeb translation makes a more modest claim on the basis of 
76.8-10, that we have no other proper (unique) trait except reason, since 
our other traits are shared by other species (and indeed they are better 
at them than we are). The inference in 76.11, then, moves from the 
uniqueness of our reason to the claim that perfection in regard to it is 
our good. The remarks about approval and disapproval in 76.11 -12 are a 
supplementary argument for the same conclusion. The Loeb interpretation 
is clearly superior and I flesh out the translation accordingly. 

LETTER 76 207 

'but it should be treated as offsetting everything else'. Shackleton-Bailey 
(1970: 354) would emend sed to nec, since he translates pensandum as 
'weighed against' and assumes that this means that the two comparanda 
have equivalent value. If my translation is possible, emendation is not 


76.12 Lucilius is portrayed as agreeing that reason is a good of man but 
as doubting still that it is the only good. This can only be because he does 
not accept the requirement that a trait must be unique to the species in 
order to count as a good at all. Hence in what follows Seneca uses a quite 
different line of argument. Focussing on intuitions about praiseworthiness, 
Seneca tacitly assumes the principle that if something is good it must be 
a necessary and sufficient basis for praise and approval. The good, then, 
is not just essentially the beneficial but also essentially the praiseworthy. 
Seneca argues by example that of all the usual candidates for goodness 
none except perfected reason is both necessary and sufficient for praise in 
all cases. On the Stoic insistence that good be regarded as something with 
an essential nature which is co-extensive with it, see CHHP 693-4 ar, d 
D.L. 7.102-3; in D.L. 7.103 the characteristic property of the good, its 
beneficial nature, is compared to fire's property of heating things. Here 
Seneca regards the praiseworthiness of the good in much the same way. 
For praiseworthiness as a key feature of the good, see also the poem of 
Cleanthes quoted by Clement at Protrepticus 6.72.2 = SVF 1.557 — LS 
6oQ_where to entimon and to euklees are among the epithets of the good. 
More pertinent, perhaps, are the arguments made by Cato at Cicero, Fin. 
3.27 to establish that every good is honourable (in effect the same claim as 
here). First, the praiseworthy is the middle term in a syllogistic argument 
to the conclusion that the good is honourable (the good is praiseworthy, 
the praiseworthy is honourable, so the good is honourable). Note that Cato 
emphasizes the formal validity of this argument. Second, he argues that the 
good is choiceworthy, that the choiceworthy is pleasing, that the pleasing 
is lovable (contra Woolf who renders diligendum 'worthy of choice'), that 
the lovable is worthy of approval and therefore also praiseworthy and 
so honourable. The argument of Seneca in 76.12 links approval and 
praiseworthiness to the good and the honourable in a similar manner. 
On one's ancestors as 'externaP see Ben. 3.28.2. 

76.13-14 illustrates with less controversial parallels and so makes more 
plausible this account of the good. Again, the examples are artefacts 
with functions and in each case function is contrasted with superficial 


ornamentation. This comparison makes it easier to treat preferred indif- 
ferents as similarly extrinsic ornaments (in 76.15). 

In 76.14 Seneca is unable to resist the sly wit of using a ruier as an 
example of a functional artefact; compare 71.19 where too the notion of 
the good as a kation is connected to the claim that it is a standard-setting 
perfection. This example also introduces the 'straightness' claim in 76.15: 
a man is good if his reason is fully deployed, straight, and integrated with 
human nature. 

76.15 'fully deployed' renders explicita, in an attempt to capture the 
metaphorical application of the word which can literally mean to unfold, 
unroll, unwrinkle, etc. and to bring into use or visibility. ' Well-ordered' in 
the Loeb suggests the wrong metaphor; the Bude takes explicita et recta as 
a hendiadys ('développée dans toute sa rectitude'). 'inclinations' renders 
vo lunt as. 

The trappings of a wealthy Roman are dismissed as merely preferred 
indifferents: land, investments, clients (social dependents as a mark of 
status), fine furniture, and verrerie. A Peripatetic might argue that some of 
these advantages make possible the exercise of virtues (such as generosity, 
magnanimity, excellent political action) which are important parts of 
human excellence. One might argue that the necessary conditions for this 
excellence are such as to excite admiration and so earn the right to be 
considered good. One might also argue that anything which facilitates 
virtue could be said to participate in it and so be considered good. But 
this line of thought would be blocked by Seneca's use of the argument 
that the good is an essential ground of praiseworthiness, that whatever is 
good must be praiseworthy in every instance. Seneca's argument relies on 
the premiss that praiseworthiness has only one cause, virtue. 76.16 States 
bluntly: 'it alone is good since there is no good without it.' This argument 
relies on the strictest Stoic notion of causation (the sunhektikon aitiori) and 
may also rely on a notion of eminent causation (the cause must contain the 

76.16 Virtue is just another name for the perfection of reason as described 
in 76.15. Seneca reasserts the claims made in 76.10, before the reinforcing 
arguments of 76.12-15, that the perfection of reason completes human 
nature and so produces happiness. The fulfillment of natural function 
completes a person and so makes him happy. Hence the 'sole good' thesis 
entails that there is only one route to happiness, through possession of the 

LETTER 76 209 

76.16 'We also say that ... '. Strictly speaking, if virtue is the only good 
then this claim that 'we' make must be false. Hence it is possible that the 
'we' refers to non-Stoics speaking incorrectly. But it is also possible that 
what 'we' say refers to a proper Stoic doctrine (that the good is virtue 
and what participates in virtue), and that Seneca is conceding that the 
products {opera) of virtue (one subset of 'what participates in virtue', see 
66.8) can be said to be good, though only virtue is good in the strongest 
sense. The products of virtue are presumably virtuous actions; normally 
Seneca claims that they are good without qualification, but here he is 
aggressively protecting the thesis that virtue alone is good by insisting on 
the causal role of the good. On the products of virtue, cf. Cic. Fin. 3. 32. 

76.17 Confirmatory argument. The claim that every good is in the mind 
is, of course, true on Stoic theory since virtue is the only good and virtue 
is a state of our mind. But this claim need not be accepted solely on 
the basis of Stoic doctrine. If one adopted a non-Stoic moral psychology 
(such as that of the Republic, where Plato postulates desires distinct from 
reason) one might want to hold that some psychological state distinct 
from perfected reason (Stoic virtue) was good. One such state might be 
'temperance' as conceived in the Republic, and such a state would certainly 
'make the mind stronger, loftier, and fuller'. Hence on the criterion 
proposed here (ability to improve the mind) this psychological state would 
be good, as one would expect a virtue to be. But (as in the Republic) 
something in the mind which merely strengthens the non-rational desires 
would not be good, because it fails to improve the mind as a whole; Plato 
would agree that the strengthening of such desires would weaken and 
degrade the mind as a whole even though it strengthens some of its parts. 
Hence the argument here is not objectionably dependent on Stoic moral 
psychology and provides a criterion of goodness which a Platonist would 
be able to accept. Unsurprisingly, Seneca here presupposes (rather than 
arguing for) a common-sense notion of what counts as improvement to 
the mind. 

'inflaming,' 'tricking'. The danger of the desires stems in part from their 
susceptibility to uncontrolled stimulation and in part from the falsity of 
the value claims on which they are based. 

76.18 The honourable (and all its equivalences) is the sole reference 
point in decisions about action. This 'single reference point' is part of 
general eudaimonism as well as Stoic theory. See on 71.2-3. 


76.18-19 The claim that virtue is the only good is said to be supported 
by generally held beliefs about what a good man would do. Seneca's 
claim is that such a person would pursue what is honourable and would 
not pursue the dishonourable despite contrary incentives in each case. In 
itself, this seems to show not the exclusive value of the honourable but its 
overriding value. But the scenario outlined does establish the first premiss 
in the 'argument' of 76.19. 

This 'argument', however, is not as well structured as one might wish. 
Seneca's conclusion is that virtue is the only good and that it cannot 
become 'not good'. That is, virtue cannot degenerate once it is achieved. 
That virtue is the sole good follows from its identification above with 
the honourable, which has also been shown to be the only good. So the 
new factor here is the claim about the irreversibility of virtue. Seneca's 
intention must be to support this claim with the assertion that 'only virtue 
is uncorrupted and it alone adheres to its course' and in the context only 
the remarks in 76.17 about the tendency of virtue to improve the mind 
can be thought to support that claim. 

76.20- 1 An afortiori argument (from observed behaviour) that externals 
are not good (the back-reference is to 74.21 and perhaps also to 71.19): 
if humans treat externals as indifferent for poor reasons, how much 
more so for adequate reasons? Since, as shown above, Seneca shares 
the general Stoic view that only something which is consistently and 
certainly good is good at all, we can see him here using an argument of 
this form in consideration of people's behaviour. Health, wealth, etc. are 
not consistently treated as being good and hence we need not consider 
them as good. This argument is very weak if we think of it as part of 
a demonstration about the nature of the good; but it is much stronger 
if we think of it as being dialectical and directed against the views of 
a representative opponent. Suppose that this opponent has argued from 
the general opinions of mankind that health and wealth are good. Seneca 
is pointing out that they are not even consistently pursued by the very 
people who share that value scheme and hence their 'testimony' does 
not support the claim that health and wealth are good. The underlying 
assumption is that if something is thought of as good it will be chosen 
unconditionally. The faet that it is reasonable to choose dispreferreds in 
some circumstances (as at S.E. M, 1 1.64-7) was a traditional argument 
for their indifference. 

The anonymous exempla here are identifiable with some confidence, 
but in some cases there are several possibilities. 

LETTER 76 211 

• The rejector of wealth was Fabricius (120.6, Prov. 3.6) or Democritus 
(Prov. 6.2). 

• The hånd in the flames belongs to Mucius Scaevola (24.5, 66.51-53, 
Prov. 3.5). 

• The man who laughed at his torturer was the Carthaginian Hasdrubal 
(see Liv. 21.2 and 78.18). 

• Fabius Maximus, Aemilius Paulus, and Marcus Cato are mentioned 
by Cicero at Tuse. 3.70 as examples of those reputed not to have cried 
at their children's funerals. Cicero also mentions there that he listed 
other examples in the Hortensius and the theme was no doubt well 
worn in the consolatory tradition. Greek examples include Pericles, 
Anaxagoras, and Xenophon. 

• Socrates, Cato, and many others met death without trembling. 

76.22 quod si est, rationi repugnat. Alternative translation (in the Loeb): 
'If there is any such thing, then it is at variance with reason . . . '. The Bude 
has 'une pareille donnée répugne å la raison ... '. The subject of repugnat 
is, indeed, not explicit in the Latin. But the reference should be to an 
opinion since this section concludes with reference to the conflict between 
erroneous views and the truth. 

This is a dialectical argument, an indirect proof. Assume that something 
besides the honourable is good, then results will follow which conflict 
with the basic concept of the virtues and the good life. For there is prior 
agreement about the stability of virtue (see, for example, 76.19 above), so 
that an assumption which contradicts it must be rejected. 

76.23 is a similarly dialectical argument. Here the assumption is that the 
good man is pious. Seneca argues that a failure of equanimity would amount 
to impiety (on the assumption that what happens in the world is providen- 
tially determined by the gods). Hence the good man must have equanimity, 
and this is only possible if he holds that only the honourable is good. 

76.24 A third dialectical argument, similarly indirect. If you deny that 
the honourable is the only good, then rational behaviour becomes unstable 
and insatiable. For it is reasonable to pursue what is good unconditionally 
and constantly, and a good without limits will lead to limitless desire. But 
that conflicts with our conception of a good person. So we must deny 
either that it is reasonable to pursue the good unconditionally or deny 
that anything limitless is good. The latter is preferable. But of desirable 
things only the honourable is intrinsically limited. The greed for life 


which would otherwise ensue is not consistently sustainable so it has no 
role in the planning of an entire good life (on eudaimonist terms). This is 
the foundation for the place made for 'limit', and only the honourable is 
intrinsically characterized by limits. 

76.25 Another dialectical argument, an indirect proof. The reference is 
to 74.14: if anything which the gods or the blessed dead cannot possess is 
good then (a) the gods lack goods and so are not happy and (b) the afterlife 
represents a loss of value rather than a liberation. Both of these are impos- 
sible. The gods cannot possess money and public office, so money and 
public office are not good. The reference to the fate of the soul after death 
is an allusion to 71.16; for Seneca's view of the afterlife, see the note ad loc. 
On death as a liberation of the soul from the body, see also 65.16 and 65.21. 

76.26 'I had also said'. The reference is to 74.16. Here we have another 
dialectical indirect proof. If things which humans share with animals are 
good (the honourable is not a feature of non-rational animal life), and 
having the good entails having a happy life, then animals wind up being 
happy. But this is impossible. So nothing shared with animals is good. See 
also 76.9-10 and notes. 

The final dialectical argument of this sequence is that if anything except 
the honourable were good then endurance would have no point. The 
argument may be filled out as follows. It is agreed that endurance of 
unpleasant things is for the sake of the honourable. We do this because 
the honourable is the good and possessing the good entails happiness. 
Hence one needs the honourable to be happy, and (as it turns out) one 
must endure unpleasant things in order to attain the honourable. If the 
honourable were not the good and so the key to happiness, then we 
would not have any reason to suffer for it. But a denial that we should 
suffer for the sake of the honourable violates common conceptions. So 
the honourable must be good. This argument, weak and indirect as it 
is, inadvertently makes clear the hypothetical nature of moral motivation 
according to the Stoics. The honourable would not be worth suffering for 
unless it led to the good. We suffer bravely and piously not for its own 
sake but for the sake of the good and happiness. 

'earlier letter'. Seneca has in mind 74 rather than 71. 

76.27 The first of a series of ad hominem appeals. The thesis that only the 
honourable is good might be proven but will never be convincing without 

LETTER 76 213 

personal reflection on one's own values and commitments. Like Cicero, 
Seneca is concerned that argument alone might not be strong enough to 
convince an audience of some of the more counter-intuitive theses of Stoic 
ethics. Here he invokes support for the thesis from reflection on one's 
own choices. Assuming a well-socialized Roman audience, he can use the 
patriotic commitments of his audience (Lucilius and the readers) as a 
starting point. If one would be willing to die for one's country in at least 
some circumstances, and if one would do so because it is the honourable 
thing to do — and these are dialectically reasonable assumptions — it 
follows, Seneca says, that the honourable is the only good. 

This may not seem to follow immediately. Even allowing that it 
is the honourable as such that motivates self-sacrifice rather than the 
more specific consideration of honourable patriotism, the reflection only 
establishes that the honourable is the highest good in a given context. If, 
however, the argument is to be helped by charitable interpretation, one 
might do so as follows. Suppose that for any thing, if you would give it up 
to get the good and so happiness, then it is itself not a good; or that there is 
a prior commitment to the view that unless something is an overriding or 
unconditional good it is not a good at all. If either of these is accepted as a 
principle then since life is the highest sacrifice one could make (subsuming 
all other candidates for good since one must be alive to have the good), 
one could say that every other value would be implicitly sacrificed if life is. 
But it is hard to see why anyone would accept this principle unless already 
convinced of the Stoic thesis that only the honourable is good and that 
other values, such as life and health, are merely preferred. Since the appeal 
is being made ad hominem, though, Seneca may be counting on Lucilius 
(and his readers) to have accepted this much of Stoic value theory already. 

'how much being honourable commits you to'. Literally, 'consider how 
great is the force (vis) of the honourable'. 

'the minute you know it should be done'. A commitment to the honourable 
is a virtuous disposition. Actions based on a firm disposition do not require 
lengthy consideration, so that as soon as one recognizes the faet that virtue 
requires self-sacrifice the action will follow immediately without further 
deliberation or hesitation. Someone not committed to the honourable 
would presumably debate the matter and consider the relative weight of 
civic values, his own life, etc. before deciding what to do. The virtuous man 
regards the matter as settled as soon as the applicability of 'honourable' is 
clear. This is what a commitment to a virtuous line of action means; the 


decisions of Socrates as recounted in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo are of 
this kind. 

76.28-30 At the end of 76.27 Seneca considered a case where one's 
sacrificial death occurred immediately upon the realization that it was 
incumbent on the agent. In such a case there would be no time for any 
pleasurable reflection on the satisfactions of having done one's duty. (It 
is irrelevant whether this pleasure is the gaudium of the sage reflecting on 
a fully virtuous aet of self-sacrifice or some lesser form of pleasure open 
to the progressor who has made an appropriate but not virtuous aet of 
self-sacrifice.) So even though (76.28) in many cases one could explain the 
motivations of a self-sacrificer as being based on a peculiarly moral plea- 
sure, even an extremely short one, there will still be cases (76.29) in which 
there is no pleasurable reflection of that sort, since the dead can derive no 
retrospective pleasure. Hence there are at least some cases in which consid- 
erations of the honourable alone will be the motivation. Seneca adds further 
the consideration that one may aet in that way even if there is no social 
reward and even if obloquy ensues (a scenario put into play in Republic 2). 

76.30 Seneca concludes that only the honourable is good. It is not 
immediately clear why this should establish that the honourable is in faet 
the only good in the entire domain of human motivation, unless perhaps 
the work is meant to be done by a tacit preference for economy: if one 
sometimes needs the strongest version of a theory to explain the moral facts, 
then one should use it even in cases where a weaker version would suffice. 
As the thought experiment just used works for appropriately motivated 
non-sages as well as for sages, Seneca claims that the awareness revealed by 
this experiment can be had not just by a sage but by any suitably talented 
and noble mind. Seneca characteristically points to aspects of favourable 
circumstances which are detrimental even though fortune smiles. The 
risk in good fortune is that it will lead to worry about its unreliability 
and also contribute to errors in value judgements by helping people to 
confuse preferred things and goods. (With regard to the instability of 
things which depend on chance, compare Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 35, 
which emphasizes that one can never be confident that a secret misdeed 
will remain secret indefinitely, and Letter to Menoeceus at D.L. 10.133 
which points to the instability of chance.) 

76.30 There are two possible readings here, illidunt 'crush' and illudunt 
'deceive' or perhaps 'play with, make fun of. The former picks up the 

LETTER 76 215 

metaphors in the immediate context, but the sense of deception would 
reflect Seneca's concern about unreliability of good fortune here and above 
at 76.17. The choice of reading is difficult. 

76.31—2 Two analogies are offered to illustrate the difference between 
a person's real attribute and merits and the false appearance generated by 
contingent external things such as wealth, health, and the other indiffer- 
ents. The evaluation of the genuine person in contrast to externals is a 
common theme; compare the remarks about judging 'naked minds' at 66.3. 
Epictetus, the Cynics, and other philosophers make similar points about 
the evaluation of character. See Gorgias 52z|.b-525a. The analogies speak 
for themselves, though it is worth noting that the extravagant costume of 
the tragic stage is a familiar metaphor for elaborately deceptive external 
appearances, whereas Seneca's play with the image of varying heights 
seems original. 

Contrary to the suggestion by Albrecht (2004: 147, n. 1), this contrast 
between the real person and his extraneous possessions does not require 
that we think of Seneca as concentrating on an 'inner' man. 

76.32 'shed his very body'. This is another indication of the evaluative 
dualism of body and soul which is common in Stoicism. It would be a 
mistake to suppose that Seneca commits himself here to the view that 
body and soul can actually be separated. The psycho-physical unity of the 
person is unaffected by this discourse. 

76.33 Seneca returns to the theme of 76.27-30. A firm grasp of Stoic 
value theory makes it possible to see how one can be happy even when 
facing or suffering extreme bodily torments, providing that the honourable 
is not sacrificed. Preparedness to meet such threats with equanimity is 
both indicated and assured by one's ability to foresee the possibility of 
such misfortune and to live accordingly. The mental habit of anticipating 
misfortune (to proend~emein, praemeditatio malorum) is a well-established 
component in the Stoic programme for mental hygiene and the prevention 
of pathe. Cicero (Tuse. 3.28-31) traces the technique to the Cyrenaics, 
but it became quite general. It is not clear whether Seneca is relying 
particularly on Cicero here. See also the notes of Graver ad loc. (2002: 
96-9) and Seneca De Ira 3.37.3. The quotation from Vergil (Aeneid 
6.103—5) is Aeneas replying to Sibyl's prediction of hardships to come 
(she had, significantly, commanded him not to 'yield to troubles but to go 


forward more boldly'). It is extended by a prose rephrasing of the speech 
still in the voice of Aeneas. 

'unswerving eyes', a common figure. See Const. Sap. 5.4 and 104.24. 

76.34-5 Seneca concludes his reflection on the praemeditatio malorum 
by comparing the fool and the wise person. Experience seems to be the key 
point of contrast. A fool either lacks or fails to make use of his experience 
of the world, experience which makes clear that there are constant risks 
of misfortune. The wise person has and uses this experience and so 
does not need to suffer emotionally in order to accept misfortunes as 
bearable. He can say 'I knew it was coming' because he lives in the light 
of an awareness that misfortune is possible and has a firm grasp of the 
real values of things. Fools suffer on the way to such understanding, if 
they ever come to have it (the maxim from Greek tragedy pathei mathos 
(Aeschylus Agamemnon 177) lies behind this insight). The importance of 
using such experience of how the world works and of the contingency that 
characterizes it is a large part of what Chrysippus meant when advancing 
his telos formula (that is, the specification of what happiness consists in) 
'living according to the experience of what happens by nature' (see on 
66.6 above). 

At the end of 76.34 Seneca points to the way experience of hardships by 
non-sages mitigates their suffering: 'people can endure what they thought 
were hardships more bravely when they have gotten used to them.' This 
remark accomplishes two things: it supports his claim that a wise person 
endures hardships without suffering — which is an extrapolation from the 
experience of becoming accustomed to misfortune; and it suggests an 
important aspect of moral progress by illustrating how it is that one can 
learn from the experience of the world. 

The letter ends with a wry contrast between the self-deception of fools, 
who don't realize that they have not achieved the maximal goal of wisdom, 
and sages. Fools merely claim that they knew misfortune was coming, 
whereas the wise do not just say it but mean it. Indeed, they know it. 
(Compare 76.20-1.) While we are on the road to wisdom, which is the full 
grasp of all that can be learned from our experience of what happens by 
nature, we often don't realize that we have not achieved complete success. 
But even at this point the progressor shows that he has at least a weak 
grasp of how wisdom contributes to happiness. Seneca's pointed contrast 
here, like his many extravagant depictions of the wise person, serves to 

LETTER 76 217 

remind progressors how much further they have to go even when they are 
on the right path. 

On this theme it is relevant to recall the Stoic paradox that the 
progressor who makes the transition to wisdom will temporarily not 
know that he or she has done so (Plutarch On Moral Progress ~;$å 
— SVF 3.539) and that the key difference between maximal progress 
and virtue is described metaphorically as a kind of solidification or 
gelling (Stobaeus, Ecl. 5.906.18-907.5 = SVF 3.510 = LS 59I). Seneca's 
interest in the epistemological aspects of moral progress emerge clearly at 


For discussion of these letters I am indebted to students in Phillip 
Mitsis's graduate seminar in October 2002. In particular I would like to 
acknowledge some helpful suggestions about 87 made by Joel Christensen 
orally and in written communication. 

Letters 85 and 87 are important for their dialectical engagement with 
the Peripatetics on central issues in ethics, especially the sufficiency of 
virtue for happiness, goods in contrast to indifferents, and the nature of 
the passions. Ciceronian texts, especially De Finibus 3-5, are in Seneca's 
mind throughout. On the debate about the nature of the passions, see 
I. Hadot (1969: 41 esp. n. 7), who lists Off. 1.88-9, Tuse. 4.43, 46; 
3.74; Ae. 1.38-9, 2.135; generally Tuse. 4.38 fif. as relevant Ciceronian 
background. On the place of this letter in the series of dialectical letters 
(82, 83, 85, 87) see Cancik 1967: 37-9, 40-2, esp. 35. Cooper 2004: 
317-20, considers the same quartet of letters at some length, arguing that 
Seneca's critical and almost dismissive attitude to dialectic is a sign of 
serious philosophical weakness and that this weakness stems in part from 
his role as a 'spiritual adviser' rather than as a truly philosophical teacher. 
This traditional criticism (for which see esp. I. Hadot 1969: 110) is offset 
by several reflections. First, it is contentious to describe Seneca's role 
primarily as a 'spiritual adviser' (as does Cooper 2004: 3 10- 11, following 
Hadot). Second, Seneca is often an ironic author. The dismissal of 
technical philosophy (dialectical here and metaphysical in Group 4) must 
be weighed alongside the faet that he chooses to introduce the technical 
material and to engage with it in a manner which more or less forces his 
readers to do the same. If his attitude were as negative as he himself says 
it is, why did he waste his time in introducing the themes at all? Silence 
would have been more effective. Leeman 1953: 307-13 (and briefly at 
Leeman 1951: 179) notices this discrepancy and attempts to account for 
it, setting it in the context of the entire anti-dialectical sequence of letters 
that begins at 45. While I am not convinced that Seneca's plans for a major 
treatise were as influential on the plan of the letters as Leeman assumes, he 

GROUP 3 219 

is certainly correct to suggest that Seneca's desire to write more technically 
on his topic came into conflict with the demands of the letter as a literary 
form, thus requiring him to undercut his own presentation of dialectic 
and metaphysics. See Introduction pp. xv-xviii and Inwood forthcoming. 

Further, as Barnes argues in Logic and the Imperial Stoa, Seneca's attack 
on dialectic is actually directed at its excesses not at the practice of dialectic 
as such. This interpretation of Seneca's aims is easier to reconcile with 
the extensive coverage Seneca gives to dialectical argumentation. It does 
not, of course, follow that Seneca could deploy syllogisms as effectively as 
Chrysippus or Zeno, but this line of thought should force us to rethink 
the traditional interpretation of Seneca's attitude. 

Finally, Cooper urges that Seneca's philosophy suffers due to its 
insufficiently serious attitude towards technical dialectic and metaphysics. 
While conceding that his technical grasp of material and technique does 
not match that of professional philosophical teachers, we should still be 
prepared to ask on a case-by-case basis just what the philosophical loss 
is when Seneca sets aside a Chrysippean doctrine or a doctrine inherited 
from the formative years of the school's history some 300 years earlier. 
Philosophical agendas change over time and the serious intellectual work 
done by (for example) analyzing the Liar Paradox in the third century 
bc may no longer matter as much in the first century ad. It may be 
that Seneca's attitude to technical philosophy is best understood in 
light of his attunement to contemporary philosophical issues. It might 
be difficult for us to imagine the philosophical environment in which 
loyalty to the Chrysippean agenda appeared as scholastic fossilization, but 
stranger reversals have occurred in the history of philosophy; we should 
be prepared to judge each of Seneca's issues on its own merits. Cooper 
(2004: 320) gives no specific analysis of 85 or 87 which supports his 
general assessment of Seneca's use of dialectic but points, rather, to his 
discussion of 82 and 83. With regard to the central argument of 82, Cooper 
concedes (pp. 318-19) that Seneca presents Zeno's argument soundly and 
effectively. On p. 319 Cooper objects to Seneca's preference for fighting 
passionate moral error by pointing to hideous consequences rather than by 
wielding well-crafted syllogisms. But here Seneca is merely following one 
eminent Stoic, Posidonius, against another, Chrysippus. This is similar, 
I suggest, to Seneca's occasional sympathy for the Aristonian tradition in 
Stoicism which claims, following Socrates, that ethics is the only branch 
of philosophy that is really needed. The analysis of 85 and 87 which 
follows suggests that Seneca's 'attack' on dialectic there is undermined by 
no worse 'failure' than those which Cooper points to in 82 and 83. 


Commentary on 85 

Thematic division 

1 : Introduction. Arguments for the sufficiency of virtue for 

2: First argument, a chain syllogism to show that prudence is 

sufficient for happiness. 
3: The Peripatetic argument based on the impossibility of 
4-7: Reply based on the meaning and merits of apatheia. 

8: Reply based on the irrelevance of how strong a passion is. 
9-10: Reply based on the need for control. 
1 1 - 1 6: Reply based on the externality of the causes of passions. 
17-18: Against the Old Academics and Epicurus. 
19-23: No degrees of happiness. 
24-9: Argument based on the passion 'fear' and the concept of 

30-7: Harm and the ship-captain. 
38-41: Harm and the sage. 

85.1 Although 71, 74, and 76 among others deal with the Stoic claim 
that virtue is sufficient for happiness, there has been relatively little use of 
typically Stoic dialectic so far in the handling of this topic. 85 and 87 are 
devoted to debate between Stoic and Peripatetic positions on the issue. 
For important discussion of Seneca's use of Stoic dialectic, see Barnes 
1997: ch. 2, esp. pp. 15-18, which include brief discussion of 85 and 
87, and Cancik 1967: 38-9; Cancik emphasizes that Seneca's deprecation 
of dialectic is pragmatic and situational, pointing to 87.41 in support. 
We may note that Lucilius is represented as requesting a comprehensive 
treatment of all the relevant arguments pro and contra the Stoic position. 
The opposing arguments are disdained as being intended to ridicule the 
Stoic position {ad traductionem suggests misrepresentation) rather than to 
refute it. At this point in the collection of letters Seneca is beginning to 
deal with more complex philosophical issues in considerable depth, as is 
shown by several important letters not included in this edition (e.g., 92, 94, 
95). By 106 Seneca reminds Lucilius that he is writing a comprehensive 
work on ethics {moralis philosophia) which will include all the quaestiones 
pertinent to it. A quaestio (translated 'question') is a dialectically framed 
philosophical issue. Although 85 does not overtly label as a quaestio the 
thesis that virtue is sufficient for happiness, that is manifestly how it is 

LETTER 85 221 

treated here. Hence Seneca's pointed remarks here about technicality and 
his transfer of responsibility for the theme onto Lucilius. 

'awP. A figure of speech for a sharp but ineffective weapon (cf. 82.24 
subula leonem excipis). This, of course, is how Seneca often treats dialectical 
arguments which may or may not exert moral force. On the humour in 
the phrase, see Grant 2000: 328. 

'on behalf of gods and humans'. These are the two categories of rational 
and therefore potentially virtuous beings. 

85.2 The possession of prudence entails self-control which entails stead- 
fastness which entails freedom from disturbance which entails freedom 
from sadness which entails happiness. (For arguments in this 'Stoic' style 
compare, e.g., Tuse. 3. 14-21.) Such chains of inference are only as good 
as their weakest link. With all such arguments we must ask whether the 
inferences are acceptable on narrowly Stoic understandings of the terms 
or on broadly accepted (within the Socratic tradition) understandings of 
the terms. This chain syllogism employs a mixture of narrow and broad 

a. Broad: prudence is the central virtue of practical reason, the rational 
excellence which would be generally agreed to underlie the successful 
conduct of life. Plato (in Republic 4) would agree that phronesis is 
accompanied by sophrosune: phroriesis is the knowledge that oversees 
just actions (443c) and justice in the soul is a sufficient condition for 

b. Broad: self-control is the disposition of managing one's feelings 
and reactions in such a manner that they are obedient to the 
deliberations and commands of practical reason. Given that reason's 
output is maximally consistent and that self-control rules out failures 
of obedience to reason's consistent commands, it is reasonable to 
conclude that 'steadfastness' results from it. 

c. Narrow, d. narrow: Stoicism presupposes that affective responses 
are completely determined by one's rational evaluations, so that a 
wise person would never be sad about his own all-things-considered 
assessment of what to do or how to react to things. Hence on a 
narrow Stoic view this inference goes through. But on a broad 
understanding of what is involved in disturbance or sadness, it is 
perfectly reasonable to be disturbed or sad about even the best 


possible set of circumstances and actions. 'Undisturbed' alludes to 
the Epicurean perspective (see below). Disturbance also forms a 
useful bridge to the issue of 'sadness'. 
e. Narrow, possibly equivocal. The sense of sadness is narrow (see 
above), but in addition the inference from 'freedom from sadness' 
to 'happiness' relies on a narrow understanding of the nature of a 
happy life, since it would be open to reasonable people to hold that 
a life which is happy as a whole might nevertheless be marred by 
a drop of sadness here or there. If the inference is meant to work 
primarily because of the opposition between 'sad' and 'happy', then 
equivocation underlies it, since the meaning of 'happy' involved in 
a eudaimonistic assessment of a good life is wider than and perhaps 
independent of the affective notion of 'happiness' to which 'sadness' 
is the natural contrary. 

Hence, as stated, the Stoic chain syllogism is highly vulnerable to Peri- 
patetic criticism, principally on the grounds that some terms are being 
used in an idiosyncratic Stoic sense. 

85.3 The Peripatetic response turns on taking the Stoic negations (e.g., 
'undisturbed') in a weaker sense than is intended in the Stoic syllogism; 
'undisturbed' means 'not very disturbed and not very often'. The reason 
given for taking the terms in this sense is that human nature cannot achieve 
the Stoic standard of complete absence of disturbance (for the 'denial of 
human nature' cf. 71.6.) Dialectically this amounts to insisting on a broad 
understanding of all the terms in the chain syllogism and objecting to the 
Stoics' use of their own stipulated meanings for the terms. This would 
certainly keep the argument closer to 'common sense'. Equivocation and 
question-begging would be avoided, but the cost to the Stoics would be 
high: the Stoics would not get their argument for the thesis that virtue is 
sufficient for happiness unless 'happiness' were understood as a condition 
that admits of variation of degree. The view that happiness admits of 
variations in degree is advanced against the Stoics in Fin, 4-5 by a 
Peripatetic spokesman. 

85.4 'Ladas'. A famous runner: Paus. 2.19.7, 8.12.5. 

'She might zoom... '. Camilla — the quotation is from Vergil, Aeneid 
7.808- 1 1. 

Seneca argues against the broad (and weak) Peripatetic interpretation, 
saying that it leaves us with an ideal of moderated passions rather than 

LETTER 85 223 

freedom from passions. There seem to be two main points in Seneca's 
response: (1) that it is possible to assess properties like health, swiftness, 
and moral stability on a non-comparative basis (per se aestimata) even 
though there are apparently degrees in such properties; (2) the Peripatetics 
set their ideal of human happiness too low. The first point echoes Cicero's 
Cato at Fin. 3.34 and coheres with the central thesis of Stoic value theory, 
that there is a kind of value which must be measured in its own right and 
not by comparison with indifferents. This thesis is meant to hold even 
where there appears to be a continuity between the two kinds of value. 
Cicero's example of light reflects this ambiguity well: the sun's brightness 
is incommensurable with the brightness of a candle and in faet is meant to 
be different in kind, yet both are forms of light. Similarly, the goodness of 
virtue and the 'goodness' of preferred indifferents are incommensurable, 
yet both are positive values in human life. In each case the Stoics maintain 
that one important feature of the difference in values is that no amount 
of the latter can add up to the former. See Fin. 3.45. At 3.39 Cicero's 
Cato says that the honourable is 'worth more' (pluris) than the preferred 
indifferents — another example of comparative language used to indicate 
what is meant to be a difference in kind. See further discussion at 66. 19-20. 
The charge that Peripatetics set their ideal for happiness too low is 
reflected in the charge that the superiority of a wise person (the only happy 
person) becomes trivial if it is merely superior on a common scale and 
not categorically different from other positive values. Hence the appeal 
of the comparison to sickness (the example here is 'fever', any degree of 
which counts as illness). For the Stoics (as for Plato in the Republic) the 
comparisons of virtue to health and vice to sickness are taken seriously. 
Cicero translates pathos as morbus ('sickness') at Fin. 3.35 and elsewhere 
and at least from Chrysippus onwards the health/sickness model had been 
taken for granted in Stoic moral psychology (e.g., Tuse. 4.30, Stobaeus, Ecl. 
2.62.20-63.5; for its Chrysippean origin see Galen, On Hippocrates' and 
Plato's Doctrines 5.2.3-7 = LS 65R = SVF 3.471, 471a). It was, of course, 
highly reminiscent of Plato's comparison of justice in the soul and health 
in the Republic, though Chrysippus had reinterpreted the comparison to 
cohere with Stoic conceptions of the soul's structure. Health, as a state 
of balance (summetria), is a perfection or completion, an all-or-nothing 
condition of the body. Any other bodily state is some degree of sickness 
and so unsuitable as an ideal. 

85.5 The language used for disturbance in the soul is also found in Cicero: 
compare inperturbatus here and perturbatio at Fin. 3.35 and elsewhere. 


The Peripatetic objection is restated. It turns on offering the Stoics 
their own understanding of 'undisturbed' and supporting it with an 
example of a negation in natural language which indicates not complete 
but relative absence of something — 'seedless' fruit is an example we 
can still appreciate (though grapes or oranges would be more familiar 
instances today). Seneca's reply is to reassert and then to justify the strong 
and narrow understanding of such terms. The counterexample here is 
derived from vision (like fever, cataracts conveniently illustrate a form 
of impairment which is variable in degree but dispreferred in even the 
smallest degree). 

The availability of analogies shows that there is no conceptual barrier to 
taking the strong Stoic position on value dualism (which relies on narrow 
interpretations of the key terms). The faet that it is not inconceivable does 
not by itself indicate that the strong Stoic ideal is in faet possible, and so 
Seneca might be accused of question-begging when he assumes it. But 
he does not just assume that a complete freedom from passions and vice 
is possible for humans — Cato and Socrates, among others, are alleged to 
establish the possibility. Hence the question becomes: why, in the case 
of passions eta, would we want to accept the narrow understanding of 
the terms? Why insist on apatheia rather than metriopatheia as our ideal? 
Even if it is possible to build one's ethics on such a strong ideal, is it also 
desirable to do so? 

In 85.5 the first reason for adopting the strong Stoic position is given. 
Even a small failing will, he claims, eventually grow to become a major 
impairment to our moral life (the comparison is with cataracts or malignant 
tumours rather than with low-level but stable nuisances like bunions or 
psoriasis). Hence, on this view, to allow that a minor moral failing is 
compatible with a happy life is to leave the happy life in a highly unstable 
condition. Not only is it not perfect (which might be acceptable to a 
Peripatetic who holds that the happy life need not be the happiest life 
since happiness can admit of degrees), but it is also liable to degeneration, 
an internal vulnerability which is not compatible with the conception of 
happiness as a stable feature of one's whole life. 

The second reason offered (85.6-7) for preferring the strong Stoic 
position rests on the claim that having one passion would lead to having 
them all. This Stoic claim parallels the thesis of the unity of virtues and 
follows from the analysis of what a passion is. If a passion is essentially a 
mistaken opinion about fundamental values (what is good and bad in life), 
then such error about the fundamentals can be counted on to produce 
inappropriate responses to a wide range of situations, potentially to all. It 

LETTER 85 225 

is clear that Seneca holds that a vice is the state of soul which underlies and 
so generates the occurrent passion when the relevant stimulus is present. 
Counterfactually Seneca considers the condition of someone with only one 
vice or passion, but in a highly developed form, and someone with many, 
but in a moderate form. The former person would be better off, Seneca 
claims. The reason for this lies in the first reason given: any passion is 
liable to develop into something much larger and more dangerous, so that 
if one has many moderate passions one has to count on eventually (since 
one is considering one's whole life) having many major passions rather 
than just one major passion (assuming that one could have just one). 

Seneca's Peripatetic opponents are credited with the view that a mod- 
erate degree of passion is compatible with a happy life. Dialectically, then, 

85.7 is doing the most important work by emphasizing the unacceptable 
consequences of allowing moderate passions; but the central support for 
this position comes from the Stoic view of the dynamic instability of the 
passions (85.5) and the constant focus on the faet that a whole life is always 
under consideration. For if, contrary to the eudaimonist assumptions 
shared by Peripatetics and Stoics, one only considered the present moment 
or a relatively short stretch of life then one might plausibly rely on moderate 
passions not getting out of control within the relevant planning horizon. 

85.8 Further support for the claim that the magnitude of a passion is 
not relevant. What underlies the instability of a passion is its failure to 
respond to reason. To have within one's moral personality elements which 
are recalcitrant to reason allegedly introduces an ineradicable instability. 
This recalcitrance is indicated by the phrase 'deaf to its persuasion', 
where the persuasion is perhaps of the sort envisaged by Aristotle in 
EN 1. 13, uo2b25-no3a3. Here the Stoic view taken by Seneca is at 
odds with Peripatetic assumptions about the structure of the human soul. 
For Aristotle claims that there is a part of the human soul which is not 
rational but is capable of obedience and disobedience to reason. The fully 
unified rational soul of Stoic theory (the mind, that is) has no such part. 
Hence, on the Stoic view, when the mind is in an irrational state it is 
corrupted and so immune to rational considerations. See Inwood 1985: 
chs. 3 and 5. 

Seneca does not, however, merely rely on having his opponent accept 
Stoic moral psychology — since his opponents would presumably not do 
so without argument. He backs it up with the comparison of passions and 
passion-producing dispositions (vices) to wild animals; in so doing he is 
drawing on the Piatonic image of the desires as wild beasts. One could 


never be confident of having tamed such beasts. (They are not tamed 'in 
good faith', i.e., so that one could rely on them; for this sense bonafide see 
Tranq. An. 1.2. Given their lack of reason, one's reason could not rely on 
the passionate wild animals in one's soul keeping their covenants.) But if 
one's plan for life is to have long-term stability one would have to be able 
to rely on their keeping their 'word' for the rest of one's life. On Seneca's 
use of such vivid psychological metaphors, see 'Seneca and Psychological 
Dualism' (ch. 2 of Inwood 2005). 

The comparison to the domesticability of tigers and lions is echoed in 
the conclusion (85.41), where the idea seems to be that the wise man can 
handle such beasts not because they are utterly reliable but because he is 
without fear of the consequence of their disobedience. We cannot be so 
tranquil before the prospect of internal savagery. 

85.9-10 'get started ... persist despite it'. See e.g., De Ira 3.10.2. Com- 
pare also the psychodynamics sketched at De Ira 2.1 ff. A crucial part of 
Seneca's case for the feasibility of extirpating passions rather than merely 
moderating them is the claim made here that preemptive eradication of 
passions is possible when reason is functioning at full effectiveness. The 
model of insanity or sickness supports this in that both are conditions 
which we all think it better to prevent than to contain. It is an empiricai 
psychological claim that it is easier to forestall a passion than to regulate 
it once it gets established; hence it ultimately requires support from our 
experience. The Peripatetics and Stoics share a conception of the happy 
life as a stable long-term condition but disagree about the psychological 
underpinnings required to achieve that goal. This suggests that if the two 
schools could agree about the facts of human psychology their ethical 
disagreements might largely disappear. 

'Balance' is the only thing which guarantees us control over our minds. 
This temperamentum is also a technical term in medicine, where the optimal 
balance of the humours is the key to stable good health. Seneca's claim that 
balance is required for long-term mental stability is grounded in orthodox 

At Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.62.15-63.5 (=SVF 3.278) the balanced symmetry 
of the soul's parts (that is, its health, soundness, strength, and beauty) 
constitutes the analogue to the good state of the body (cf Tuse. 4.29-30), 
and for Chrysippus such parts would be the contents of our minds 
(on the parts of soul being our prolepseis kai ennoiai see also Galen 
On Hippocrates' and Plato's Doetrines 5.2.49-5.3.1 = LS 53V = SVF 
2.841). Hence the mental 'balance' envisaged here can and perhaps should 

LETTER 85 227 

be given a fully cognitive interpretation — it is the failure to maintain 
consistent and harmonious beliefs over one's life that leads to episodes 
and then dispositions of a passionate character. (The term used in Ecl. 
2.62.15-63.5 {—SVF 3.278) for the balanced blend of bodily or mental 
components is eukrasia and it is probably this term which stands behind 
Seneca's use of temperamentum.) 

On the disease metaphor, see Galen On Hippocrates' andPlato 's Doctrines 
5.2.3-7 (— LS 65R), Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.93.1-13 (= LS 65S = SVF 3.421) 
and I. G. Kidd 1983: 107-13. The treatment of the topicin Tuse. 4.23-31 
is well discussed by Graver 2002, ad loc. The idea that passions are diseases 
(in contrast to the view of the Peripatetics) also occurs at De Ira 3.10. 

85.11-13 Since passions are rooted in false beliefs about the value of 
external things, it follows that the stimuli to passions are in a crucial sense 
external to us and hence beyond our (immediate) control. Seneca argues 
that another reason for the complete elimination of the passions (rather 
than their moderation) lies in the faet that the triggers for passions lie 
outside our control. Seneca does not contradict the Stoic doctrine that we 
are responsible for our passions (that they are 'up to us' in that sense), 
since passions depend on assent no matter how strong the stimulus might 
be and assent is always up to us. 

But Seneca is not here addressing the question of whether we are 
accountable for our passions (of course we are). Rather, his argument 
relies on the practicalities of self-control and self-management and our 
ability to become the kind of person who will be able to resist temptations 
(cf. EN 3.5, H45a3-b25). Given that our characters are weak, we need 
to be particularly careful about stimuli and temptations (cf. 116. 5-6). 
Seneca's hope is that even his non-Stoic readers will see the force of this 
consideration. Cf. also Inwood 2005: ch. 2 on Seneca's interest in the 
practical aspects of self-control. 

The desire to keep within our control the key factors influencing our 
overall well-being is, then, a further reason for the complete elimination of 
passions from our conception of the happy life. If we give externals access 
to our most important motivational processes, then (as Seneca has already 
argued) we lose control over our own mental dynamics. There is assumed 
to be a fairly direct correlation between the magnitude of the cause and 
the magnitude of the effect, so that failure to control the cause (it being 
external) means abdicating control over the effect (our reaction to it). 
Hence it is necessary to render ourselves immune to the stimuli. The way 
to do that is not dealt with explicitly here, since here Seneca is primarily 


concerned with providing reasons to prefer the Stoic approach to the 
Peripatetic one. The comparison to physical diseases and the inevitability 
that passions will grow once they begin are also invoked here. 

85.14-16 Some people (possibly accommodationist Stoics but more 
likely Peripatetics) attempt to insulate the inner person from the outer 
circumstances by distinguishing one's stable mental state from the impact 
of external causes which can inflict disturbance. Since (on Seneca's view) 
externals can only have such impact if one puts the wrong kind of 
value on them, this amounts to allowing that one could engage deeply 
with externals while maintaining the stable tranquillity of one's mental 
condition. In 85.15, then, Seneca claims that this view amounts to holding 
that one can be free of a passionate disposition and yet experience 
occasional episodes of passion. This would enable one to be tranquil 
about the state of one's soul (in that one is confident that one is free of 
vice and passionate dispositions) and still to engage with externals in a 
'normal' way. Yet (on Seneca's view) to care about externals in a normal 
way means permitting at least transient passionate responses — since the 
aet of valuation involved in caring about (e.g.) one's children just is an 
affective commitment. To value the life of one's child just is to fear when 
there is apparent risk to that life. Seneca's claim (which amounts to a 
reassertion of the Stoic view of psychodynamics already outlined and 
the denial that such insulation is possible) is that repeated occurrences 
of transient episodes of passion will in faet produce a corresponding 
disposition in the mind (see Cicero, Tuse. 4.24 for the theory, cf De Ira 
1.5 ff passim; a similar view at Epict. Diss. 2.18, esp. 8-11). We see that 
a great deal depends on the truth of Stoic claims about psychodynamics. 
The Peripatetic opponent is highly vulnerable to this argument, for he 
presumably appreciates Aristotle's claim that we become just by doing 
just actions, i.e., by repeated performance of the action even without the 
inner disposition and would be hard pressed not to allow that one becomes 
dispositionally passionate (i.e., vicious) by repeated experience of episodic 
passion even without the inner disposition. 

85.17 The relationship between the propositions (a) that the only good 
is the honourable and (b) the claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness. 
(a) establishes that things like health and safety and wealth are not good 
and so that we need not have passionate responses to their presence or 
absence, (b) establishes that no externals or indifferents (such as health 
and wealth) are needed for the happy life. Seneca is claiming that people 

LETTER 85 229 

who accept (a) will always accept (b); but people who accept (b) will not 
necessarily accept (a); in so doing they are merely observing a rule of logic. 

This should be interpreted as follows. If one holds that virtue is 
sufficient for happiness but not for the highest degree of happiness, then 
one will presumably think the following. The honourable is virtue and 
what flows from virtue, i.e., the good. Having virtue means having a very 
substantial good, one that is so great that happiness results. But there 
are other goods, one might think, such as health and wealth, such that 
having virtue plus health or wealth or both means having more goods and 
so being happier. (The underlying notion is that happiness consists in the 
possession and use of goods.) Hence one may hold (b) but not (a), and this 
is in faet the position attributed to the 'Old Academy' and its Peripatetic 
spokesman in Cicero's De Finibus. 

But if one holds (a) one holds that the honourable (virtue and its 
products) has a monopoly on the good, and since happiness is a matter of 
having and using goods then one will also hold (b). 

Seneca is being scrupulous, then, in pointing out that his Peripatetic 
opponents cannot be cajoled into conceding (a) just because they grant 
(b) and so that (a) requires a distinct demonstration. But (a) is precisely 
the point which Antipater once argued (in three books) was held by Plato 
(see SVF 3 Antipater 56). Hence we can see why Stoics would attempt 
to divide the 'Old Academy' into Plato (who is committed to key Stoic 
theses) and Peripatetics (who are the main opponents in ethical matters). 
In De Finibus 4-5 Cicero makes a Peripatetic speak for Antiochus' 'Old 
Academic' ethics. 

85.18 Xenocrates and Speusippus are Old Academics who do not hold 
(a) (85.17) and so (Seneca might claim) align themselves with Peripatetics 
against Plato. See also 71.18. 

According to Seneca, Epicurus commits a different error (see frr. 504-22 
Usener for Epicurus' views on virtue; see also De Vita Beata 7.1 and 12.3). 
Epicurus allegedly holds that when one has virtue one is happy, but denies 
that virtue is sufficient for happiness. How can he do so? Seneca says that 
it is because Epicurus believes that it is the pleasure produced by virtue 
which makes a person happy, not the virtue itself. Epicurus, according to 
Seneca, ties sufficiency for happiness to the immediate causal dependency 
of happiness on pleasure. 

The text behind Seneca's critique seems to be Principal Doctrine 5, 
according to which 'it is impossible to live pleasantly without living 


prudently, honourably, and justly [i.e., virtuously] and impossible to 
live prudently, honourably, and justly [i.e., virtuously] without living 
pleasantly. And whoever lacks this [virtuous living] cannot live pleasantly.' 
Evidently Epicurus regards virtue and a pleasant life as coextensive or 
extensionally equivalent: where you find one you find the other and vice 
versa. Seneca claims that Epicurus should, therefore, treat virtue as being 
sufficient for happiness just as pleasure is (thus supporting the Stoic view). 
His failure to do so (that is, the denial that virtue is sufficient for happiness) 
leads to the charge that Epicurus has made a clumsy distinction. 

This is either a polemical distortion of Epicurus' views (which would 
not be surprising, since Cicero takes a similar approach in Fin. 2 and in 
Tuse. 3) or (if it is a correct assessment of his views) it shows that Epicurus 
was relying on causal relationships among virtue, pleasure, and happiness 
which are not reducible to necessary and sufficient conditions thought of in 
purely extensional terms. Supposing that it is a correct account of Epicurus' 
views, it seems reasonable for Epicurus to hold that causal sufficiency 
should be thought of in terms that are not merely extensional (Chrysippus 
did so). Yet Seneca's critique in 85.18 relies on an exclusively extensional 
interpretation. His goal is to show that Epicurus, if he thought clearly 
about the issue, would agree that virtue too is sufficient for happiness. 

This debate is reminiscent of the Stoic criticism of the Epicurean cradle 
argument as summarized at D.L. 7.85-6; there the Stoics argue that an 
infant's first affiliation is not to pleasure but to self-preservation and that 
pleasure is at best a concomitant to the acquisition of self-preservatory 
objects. The Stoic grants that pleasure may be coextensive with self- 
preservation but that there are reasons to grant explanatory privilege to 
self-preservation. Similarly, Seneca is here envisaging dialectically that 
one may grant the coextension of virtue and pleasure in the happy life 
and still need further argument to demonstrate that pleasure rather than 
virtue is the cause of happiness. Aristotle had argued that pleasure is a 
state supervenient on the unimpeded activity of one' s nature; the Stoics 
certainly recognized chara, a virtuous pleasure occasioned by the good 
and enjoyed by the sage; Plato also recognized the pleasures of a life 
characterized by virtue and wisdom. Hence it is not unreasonable for 
Seneca to put the burden of proof on the Epicureans who wish to reverse 
the direction of dependence between the two. 

85.19 returns to the Old Academic position and the view that there 
can be degrees of happiness. Again, this falls within the sphere of debate 
represented by Cicero's De Finibus. Seneca replies to it with purely 

LETTER 85 231 

conceptual arguments about what it means for something to be a happy 
life. It is allegedly the case that (1) a happy life possesses maximal good 
and (2) that a happy life is divine. Each of these claims supports the denial 
of degrees of virtue, the first when combined with the understanding 
of happiness as consisting in the possession and use of goods and the 
second when combined with the assumption that the divine represents a 
conceptual limit for human good and happiness. 

85.20 Another trait of the happy life is (3) that it lacks nothing. All these 
characteristics entail that no increase can occur once the 'happy' threshold 
is reached. 

'much more happy'. See 71.18 and 74.26; also De Vita Beata 16. 

85.21 puts the point in a motivational framework, the assumption being 
that one always desires maximal happiness and the means to it. The 
notion that one will desire nothing if one is really happy is consistent 
with Aristotle's notion of a happy life as a perfection and with the Stoic 
and Aristotelian notion of happiness as a 'fulfillment' or 'completion'. To 
desire something more is to reveal a lack, an incompleteness; hence if one 
is happy, fulfilled, and complete one ought to desire nothing more. And 
yet if there were still a greater good one would be right to want it. 

A key commitment underlying the denial of degrees of happiness is the 
denial of degrees of goodness; since happiness consists in possession and 
use of the good, if there is no greater good available there is no greater 
happiness available. In 85.19 Seneca claims that 'the happy life has within 
itself a good which is perfect and unsurpassable' and in 85.20 he holds that 
'the highest good is that which has no level above it', i.e., that the good is 
by definition the highest good, that there are no degrees of goodness. This 
issue has already been discussed in 66 and in the sequence 71, 74, 76. See 
also Irwin 1986. 

85.22—3 The underlying error is diagnosed: the Old Academics fail to 
see that since the happy life is motivationally all-inclusive there can only 
be one such life, not a range of them. All tokens of the type 'happy 
life' have to be identical in terms of their motivational impact and value 
(see 66). Hence the aptness of Seneca's emphasis here on 'fullness' and 
comparisons with satisfaction in eating and drinking. Nothing can be 
fuller than the full. Being sated is the same state regardless of how much 
food or drink it took to get there. 


This much can perhaps be accepted on the broad understanding of 
happy life which one can assume non-Stoics might share. But what about 
the factor of time? Seneca claims that length of time does not affect one's 
happiness. Seneca here gives us no reason to hold that a longer life of 
happiness would not be preferable to a shorter one (though that is in 
faet the Stoic position). In terms of the motivational argument offered 
above, an Aristotelian (committed to the view that one swallow does not 
make a springtime) might argue that once one has achieved virtue, the 
maximal good, one may still desire something — its continuation. And 
that requires a longer life, which becomes an appropriate object of desire 
and so a vulnerable good. The gods, of course, live forever so that their 
happiness has a form of completeness which maximal human happiness 
lacks. But the Stoics hold that Zeus and the sage are indistinguishable 
in their happiness. This line of thought points directly to Seneca's need 
for a focussed philosophical engagement with the relationship of human 
mortality to human happiness — hence his concern with death should not 
be understood primarily in relation to human psychology. No doubt he 
has reasons to reflect on the meaning of his own mortality, as do we all: he 
is, after all, old as he writes these letters, preoccupied with ill health and 
no doubt concerned with the prospect of forced suicide as he falls out of 
favour with Nero. But the philosophical need to grapple with these issues 
is independent of psychological and biographical considerations. 

85.23 'This predicate cannot be reduced'. That is, this is a predicate 
which cannot, according to the Stoics, be applied in varying degrees: no 
one can be less happy than some other happy person. If their happinesses 
are not identical then the 'lesser' happiness is not happiness at all. 

85.24-9 The virtue of courage can be shown to entail happiness by 
means of a chain syllogism (85.24). If one has courage then one has no fear; 
if one has no fear then one has no sadness; if one has no sadness then one 
is happy (cf 85.2 and comment above). The objection made is that Seneca 
is illegitimately helping himself to a controversial premiss (in a dialectical 
argument one can only succeed if the premisses are conceded by one's 
interlocutors). The narrow Stoic claim is that a brave person will be com- 
pletely free of fear rather than merely free of extreme or excessive fear. The 
general issue about the passions has already been explored above, so this 
discussion is essentially a special example of it. Hence in 85.25 Seneca says 
first that the objector falls prey to the problem already dealt with. The sub- 
stantive reply to the objection, though, turns on a specification of what 'bad' 

LETTER 85 233 

really means: on the narrow Stoic view (that only vice is bad and everything 
else is merely dispreferred) the virtuous person will literally have nothing 
to fear. A dialectical rejoinder concludes the section: on the objector's 
view (that it is madness not to fear bad things) the saner and more prudent 
one is the more fears one will have, since on the objector's view there is a 
superabundance of bad things in the world and a wise person is more aware 
of them. The unstated conclusion of this is that it conflicts with commonly 
held views to suppose that prudent people go around in constant fear. 

The objection and Seneca's reply put the focus properly on the faet 
that the Stoics (following Socrates) have introduced a narrow and special 
sense of 'bad' (vice and what participates in vice, i.e., the shameful which 
is the only truly harmful thing), so that it is in faet reasonable to hold that 
he who is brave has no fear, providing that fear is construed narrowly not 
broadly. This point is made clearly in 85.25 'if they really are bad things'. 

85.26 The distinction between fearing and cautious avoidance is pre- 
cisely the Stoic distinction between pathe and eupatheiai (passions, which 
are characteristic of the vicious person, and 'good' passions which are 
their psychological counterparts in the virtuous); the Greek term for the 
eupatheia 'avoidance' is eulabeia. Seneca invokes it here to rebut the claim 
that the Stoic view leads to paradoxical (and so dialectically unacceptable) 
conclusions. The objection is that without fear of bad things the virtuous 
person will aet unreasonably in exposing himself to danger. Seneca's reply 
is twofold: the 'dangers' are not really bad; and 'avoidance' is possible 
without fear. 

85.27 Ordinary objects of fear are merely dispreferred rather than 
bad, hence fear of them would be erroneous. Furthermore, in some 
circumstances such dispreferred things are embraced by the wise person; 
hence they cannot be genuinely bad. See on 76.20-1 and 71.28. Also 
CH HP, 701 and Stobaeus, Ed. 2.90. 

The account of what the bad is (85.28) emphasizes freedom and autonomy 
more aggressively than earlier Stoic sources do, but Seneca's basic picture 
is conservative. The bad is an internal mental failing (giving in to things 
which are regarded as bad but which in faet are not). The freedom which 
this costs us is our freedom from passions. The idea that virtue consists in 
an ability to distinguish genuinely good or bad things from those which 
are merely apparently so is part of the Socratic heritage of Stoicism (see, 
e.g., Plato's Laches). 


85.29 In this vivid section we should note the realistic concession that 
the wise person feels pain — physical pain rather than emotional distress. 
Cf. 9.3, 71.27-31, Const. Sap. 10.4, De Ira 1.16.7. Seneca also reveals 
an intriguing side of Stoicism here: the attitude of concern that the wise 
person feels towards himself when afflicted by dispreferred situations is 
like that of someone who comforts an ailing friend (who is another self). 
Such concern will be sincere but not passionate. There is no question of 
one's own genuine benefit being at risk in either case. 

85.30-6 The Stoic concept of the bad as what is genuinely harmful is 
put to the test by an example-based conceptual challenge to the notion of 
'the harmful'. The nautical example is, of course, widespread in ancient 
ethics; see, for example, Plato, Gorgias 511 -12, Republic book 1, eta; 
Aristotle EE i247a5~8, EN no4aio, etc. 

The Stoic argument (the example 'pain' is omitted for simplicity): 

(1) What is bad does harm. (A Socratic claim.) 

(2) What does harm makes one worse. 

(3) Poverty does not make one worse. 

(4) So poverty is not harmful. (modus tollens) 

(5) So poverty is not bad. (modus tollens) 

The Peripatetic attack: 

(a) A storm harms the captain. 

(b) But a storm does not make the captain worse. 

(c) So what does harm does not make one worse. 

Le., (2) is denied by means of this example. So the Stoic argument to 
show that poverty is not bad fails. That is, the Peripatetic concludes that 
there can be a source of harm which is not bad in the sense that it makes a 
person worse. (1) and (2) show that the Stoics are committed to the claim 
that everything bad makes one worse because everything bad does harm. 
Thus we see that the Stoics accepted the Socratic narrowing of the terms 
'harm' and 'bad' whereas the Peripatetics clearly retain a broader sense of 
at least the term 'harm'. 

The first Stoic response is to deny (b) and so (c). This response keeps 
the notions of harm and badness tightly connected but does so at the 
cost of broadening the notions to include non-moral badness. Hence it is 
vulnerable to the Peripatetic rejoinder, which is to argue from analogy 
that if a storm makes the captain worse then poverty makes the wise man 
worse — that is, less able to carry out his virtuous actions. This, of course, 

LETTER 85 235 

is based on an Aristotelian point (about externals such as wealth as the 
necessary means to acts of virtue) which underpins the notion of degrees 
of virtue. 

85.32 The first defence of the Stoic response involves rejecting the 
analogy underlying the Peripatetic reply. The goal of a virtuous person 
is to do whatever he does properly, not to accomplish a substantive set 
of goals, while the goal of a craftsman like the captain is to achieve his 
material objectives. Hence on precisely the point in question there is a 
disanalogy. On the debate about the nature of the Stoic telos and the 
characterization of virtue as a skill, see Striker 1986. 

85-33 _ S But Seneca's own preferred reply is to maintain the analogy 
and to accept (b), while instead denying (a). The distinction among the 
roles (personae) of an agent is associated primarily with Panaetius (see 
Gill 1988), but the concept is older than that in the history of the school 
(as I argue in 'Rules and Reasoning', Inwood 2005: 129-30, n, 84). Here 
Seneca needs something weaker than Panaetian personae to make his point; 
it suffices that there be two distinguishable aspects of a person to focus on, 
a non-technical notion marked by the relative adverb qua or its equivalent 
fj in earlier philosophy (seen as early as Empedocles but most famously 
in Aristotle). In this translation qua represents the Latin word tamquam. 
In his role as passenger the captain is harmed by a storm, but not in his 
role as captain, which consists in the expert exercise of his craft regardless 
of the outcome. In this reply the captain remains analogous to the wise 
person who is autonomous as regards the practice of the craft, the craft 
whose success conditions are not vulnerable to defeat by outside factors. 

^5-33 'Neptune'. This is an allusion to the story of the Rhodian ship- 
captain who boasted that he would always do his job well even if Poseidon 
sank his ship. It was used by Teles the Cynic in his On Apatheia 62, which 
suggests the tradition Seneca follows in citing it here. He also alludes to it 
at 8.4. See also Aelius Aristides, Rhodian Speech 13, p. 542 Jebb. For the 
general point cf 87.12-18. 

85.36 The analysis of the ship-captain move is reinforced by invoking 
the case of the doctor (another very common craft analogy). The idea that 
an art deals with someone else's good is drawn from Republic 1 (343c, in 
Thrasymachus' account of justice as the other fellow's benefit). The effect 
of this move is curious. Seneca divides the good of a doctor or captain into 


the aspect which serves others and that which consists in the excellent 
exercise of the craft. This enables him to concede tentatively ('perhaps') 
to his interlocutor and to common sense that some part of the good of the 
doctor or the captain might be impaired while the good which is properly 
his own is not affected. 

85.37 But even if the ship-captain is harmed with respect to the benefit 
he can give to his fellows, the analogous wise person is not. The only 
impairment he could possibly suffer would be in the works which relate to 
others. But even if he is impaired in some important social functions (like 
political leadership) he would continue to benefit others just because of 
his example as a moral agent. In faet, when he suffers the kind of external 
misfortune which hinders his political or social role he thereby inspires 
by a good example which is of even greater benefit to others. (Recall that 
in 85.34 Seneca indicated how the difficulties imposed on the captain 
by weather actually show his art rather than impede it by giving him a 
greater challenge.) Hence unlike the ship-captain (who might be thought 
of as partially impaired), the wise man can always aet fully in the morally 
relevant sense. There are no raw materials so bad that he cannot illustrate 
virtue for his fellow man, and this provides genuine benefit. 

85.38 returns to the point under debate, whether the wise man is harmed 
by poverty, pain and other afflictions (and the parallel claim for the ship- 
captain). Seneca has maintained his denial of the Peripatetic claim (a) from 
85.30 above (and also maintained the analogy with the ship-captain and 
the traditional view that wisdom is a craft), though with a slight concession 
to common sense and the Peripatetics. This denial enables him to reject 
the Peripatetic attack and so to continue to hold that poverty is not bad 
(85.30). So far we see Seneca responding to the dialectical challenge from 
the Peripatetics and defending the Stoic view that poverty is an indifferent 
rather than a bad thing. And he has done so in a way which contrasts 
his own uncompromisingly Stoic view with the rather weaker response of 
some Stoics outlined at 85.32. 

However, in the rest of this letter Seneca goes on to address a philo- 
sophical issue which is distinctively his own. As is clear from other 
letters, Seneca is attracted by the notion that dispreferred situations, while 
still indifferent, are nevertheless preferable in some respects to preferred 
indifferent situations. See, for example, on 66.49-53. Here in 85.38-41, 
Seneca argues that the example set by a wise person struggling against 
misfortune can be of particular educational value. Just as in 85.34 ( ar, d 

LETTER 85 237 

more generally in 85.34-7) Seneca maintained that the ship-captain's skill 
is shown off better if there is a storm to challenge him, so the wise person's 
virtue is shown off better amidst misfortune. 

In 85.38 Seneca begins with the denial that the 'inevitabilities' of life 
can prevent the wise person from being of benefit to others. Not only is 
his own proper good (the execution of his craft of living) unaffected, but 
the good as it affects others is not impaired because he sets an example 
to others. When the sage suffers, others benefit. Socrates, for example, 
cannot participate directly in the political education of others since he is 
too poor to participate in political life; but he can nevertheless educate his 
fellow citizens in how to manage poverty. 

Seneca's point that the wise person's work on behalfof others permeates 
his life amounts to the observation that whatever he does benefits others 
by his example, whether he is active in a positive way or active in his 
endurance of hardship. The way we are to understand how he does so 
depends on how we construe one crucial sentence: id enim ipsum agit quo 
alia agere prohibetur. I have translated this: 'For the obstacle by which 
he is hindered from doing other things is something which he is actively 
engaged with.' Poverty, that is, is something a wise man does rather than 
something he merely suffers. This coheres with the claim that nothing 
prevents a wise person from acting and that his work extends throughout 
his whole life. 

But both the Loeb and the Bude editions construe the sentence 
differently: 'For the very thing which engages his attention prevents him 
from attending to other things;' 'Car, il a précisement l'occupation qui lui 
interdit les autres occupations.' But this construal must be wrong. Just 
above Seneca has claimed that a wise man can be prevented from engaging 
in one kind of political activity by his poverty and that despite this he 
shows his fellow citizens how to manage poverty. That is, the obstacle to 
one activity is the external impairment, poverty, and yet he can show us 
how well he handles poverty. This pattern is preserved in my translation, 
whereas the Loeb and Bude seem to suggest that the wise man is actually 
distracted by one of his proper interests from attending properly to others. 
The construal I propose is perhaps not the most obvious one — it requires 
that we take agit in a strong and unusual sense. But much of the point 
here turns exactly on the counter-intuitive way in which the wise person 
can be said to aet. The translation I propose is certainly possible: id ipsum 
is the antecedent for quo in the subordinate clause and the same person is 
grammatical subject of both agit and prohibetur. 


85.39-41 The emphasis here is on how the wise person prepares 
himself for the responsibilities just outlined: to show others how to aet 
well when the raw material of life is disappointing. In order to manage 
good fortune well and master ill fortune, he must train himself. This 
involves, evidently, deliberate exposure to adversity — here too (see 66.49) 
we see Seneca proposing a reason to appreciate the misfortune which 
comes our way, as it can help us to prepare ourselves for our tasks as moral 

85.39 F° r tne contrast between virtue and its raw material, which goes 
back at least to Chrysippus, see Plu. Comm. Not. 1069c = LS 59 A. The 
crucial role played here by experience, especially experience of misfortune, 
points to Chrysippus' formulation of the telos as 'living according to 
an experience of what happens by nature' (D.L. 7.87; Stobaeus, Ecl. 
2.76.6-8); this formula is alluded to by Cicero repeatedly in the De Finibus 
(2-34, 3-3i, 4-i4)- 

'Headlong' is a term often used by Seneca in the description of passions 
and so is particularly relevant here. See De Ira 1.7.4, 3-Mj 3 I2 -4; tne 
source of the image is of course the runner example used in Chrysippus' 
Peri Pathon (Galen, On Hippocrates' and Plato's Doctrines 4.2.16 = SVF 
3.462 = LS 65J and Seneca's further allusion to it at De Ira 2.35.1-2). 

85.40 'oppressed . . . makes use of . The contrast is illustrated with anoth- 
er familiar craft example, sculpture. Sculptors can do their job with a wide 
range of raw materials, which are meant to be analogous to the range 
of circumstances we face in life. Seneca's point is that there is always a 
craftsmanlike job to be done even with inferior materials. The preferability 
of good materials (bronze for the sculptor, wealth, health and so forth for 
people in general) is clear, but so is the possibility of success with adverse 
materials. 'Something worth remembering' strongly suggests the exem- 
plary function of virtuous action amidst adversity, the role for which we 
must prepare ourselves. Seneca's attitude to dispreferred circumstances 
is complex but orthodox. They are dispreferred (to be rejected when one 
has a choice in the matter), but they do not mar our happiness since they 
are not bad and so can provide an opportunity for virtuous action. Where 
Seneca might be going beyond his predecessors is in his realization that it 
is precisely because of his role as a moral exemplar that the wise person 

LETTER 87 239 

can use misfortune well. That is a positive aspect of misfortune both 
when he is showing his virtue off like Cato and when he uses preliminary 
misfortunes as training tools to prepare for such a demonstration. 

85.41 Hence the wise person is a craftsman even when dealing with 
misfortune — the ultimate artifex. His craft is like that of the wild beast 
tamer, where the lions and tigers are the contingent misfortunes of life. 
Seneca's contribution to the developing tradition of the craft analogy is to 
add one more craft to the canon, the lion-tamer. (See also 85.8 above.) 

'lion's mouth'. Reynolds rightly follows Eduard Frånkel's conjecture 
leonis faucibus for leonibus in the mss (see Frånkel 1962: 224). 

Commentary on 87 

Thematic division: 







Scene setting. The philosophical traveller. 

External 'goods' in contrast to genuine merit. 

The theme of the letter announced. 

Argument 1. 

Argument 2. 

Argument 3. 

Argument 4. 

Argument 5. 

Argument 6. 

The conclusion. 

The main theme of this letter is wealth, but not wealth as redefmed by 
Epicurus: 'poverty, when managed in accordance with the law of nature, 
is great wealth' (cited at 4.10, 27.9, fr. 477 Usener; cf. 2.6); Stoics too 
recognized this stipulative sense of 'wealth' in the Stoic paradox which 
holds that only the wise man is rich (see Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum 6, 
Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.101.14-20). But Seneca deals here with wealth in the 
conventional sense (see the summary of the views of Seneca's teacher 
Attalus at 1 10. 14-20). 20 and 119 also deal with the nature of wealth, and 
the former foreshadows several aspects of this letter. For a view about 


the moral standing of wealth similar to the one expressed in this letter, 
see De Vita Beata esp. 24.5: 'I say that wealth is not a good. For if it 
was, it would make people good. Now, since that which is detected in bad 
people cannot be called good, I deny them this name. But I do concede 
that wealth is worth having and is useful and brings great advantages to 
one's life.' This is a standard Stoic view, from which not even Posidonius 
departed (see below on 87.31-40). Compare also Tranq. An. 8-9 (which 
emphasizes the high psychological cost of losing one's wealth as a key 
reason for minimizing one's commitment to it). 

This letter falls into two parts, which are sharply divided. There is a non- 
dialectical part (87.1-11, included as an extract in Summers 1910) and a 
dialectical part (87. 1 1 -41) with 87. 1 1 forming the bridge between the two. 
The non-dialectical part should not be thought of as non-philosophical. 
Summers notes close parallels to the themes of 87.1 -11 in 41.7, 44.6-7, 
90.13, and 123. 1 -7. But in 87. 1 1 Seneca explicitly closes off the discussion 
of external advantages (which, he says, are really impediments) and turns 
to a set of arguments about virtue and its sufficiency for the happy life. The 
emphasis on wealth in the non-dialectical part of the letter foreshadows 
the dialectical section, in which wealth is the preferred indifferent chosen 
for exemplary discussion. 

87.1-3 A minimal diet and simple lifestyle, making oneself calm by 
fearing nothing, making oneself rich by desiring nothing — these are all 
themes common to Epicurean and Cynic philosophers as well as to Stoics. 
Stoics share with Epicureans in particular the conviction that limits and 
rational control are vital to achieving a happy life. It is important to 
remember that Seneca's openness to Epicurean ideas lasts throughout the 
letters and is not confined to the early books. 

James Ker (2002: 175-6) emphasizes the close connection of the opening 
scene of this letter with 86. 87 is also the culmination of a sequence of 
letters dealing with dialectic. Cancik (1967: 35) identifies the group as 
including 82, 83, 85, 87; she also identifies an earlier sequence on the 
theme (45, 48, 49). 

87.1 'even if you don't want me to'. See 58.6; also 81. 11 and Ben. 2.35.2 
on Stoic paradoxes: 'some things that we say conflict with customary 
opinion and then return to it by another route.' (See also Inwood, 'Politics 
and Paradox in Seneca's De Beneficiis\ ch. 3 of Inwood 2005.) According 

LETTER 87 241 

to Cleanthes (Epict. 4.1. 173 = SVF 1.6 19, also attributed to Zeno in 
a later anthology; see SVF 1.281) the Stoic paradoxes are 'contrary to 
opinion [paradoxa] but not in faet contrary to reason [paraloga]'. More 
generally, Cicero's Paradoxa Stoicorum (number 6 deals with wealth) is 
relevant background to this letter. Like Cicero, Seneca engages with the 
Stoic paradox in his own way, to show how it can be made effective for 
the audience he addresses. This motivation is made clear at the end of this 
letter, 87.41. 

'shipwreck'. The paradox of being shipwrecked before setting sail may 
have been traditional. As Summers (1910) points out ad loc, Seneca's 
father includes, in his Controversiae 7.1.4, a sentence crafted by Quintus 
Haterius describing someone doomed to failure from before the beginning 
of a voyage: naufragus a litore emittitur 'he left shore shipwrecked already'. 
In that case the claim was literal, not figurative: a man is put to sea in a 
disabled boat to meet his doom. 

87.2 Caesennius Maximus, known as an influential friend of Seneca 
(Martial 7.45) who seems to have accompanied him in his Corsican exile 
many years before (Martial 7. 44). He was, then, a most intimate friend 
of long standing, just the sort of man to accompany Seneca on this 
self-consciously parsimonious road journey. See Tzcitus Annals 15.71 and 
Furneaux 1896, ad loc. 

'a very few servants'. Summers' note ad loc. suggests that three to five 
servants would be a small number for a travelling aristocrat. 

87.3 'lunch ... under an hour'. The text may well be troubled here, as 
Reynolds indicates; but this is a plausible translation. Summers emends to 
non agminis cura, which suggests the translation, 'lunch was minimal, quick 
and easy, not the task of a regiment [of slaves]'. I am unconvinced. The 
Bude is also content with the transmitted text. For a lengthy discussion 
and a different emendation, see Allegri 1981. Allegri's emendation does 
not change the basic sense of the passage: lunch was a modest affair 
requiring little effort in preparation. 

'New Year's Day'. Figs were traditional at the New Year (Summers cites 
Ovid Fasti 1.185) as well as being a typical example of a simple food. 


They were also a special favourite of Zeno, founder of the school (D.L. 
7.1 and 7.185). 

'foreign to it'. See 76.32. 

87.4-5 Seneca knows the proper value of externals but is embarrassed 
at the prospect of bearing witness to those values in a public way. He is 
advanced enough morally to live modestly but blushes at being seen to do 
so. His insufficient progress comes out in his reluctance to rail in public 
against the views of mankind and empty luxury. 

'pro ve ... home'. Seneca emphasizes here the important distinction 
between individual actions, decisions, and beliefs which reflect sound 
values and the kind of stable disposition which can be relied on for a 
prolonged period. Here Seneca is conceding that his progress towards 
a stable state of moral improvement is not complete. For the pairing of 
'prove' and 'approve of (represen ting probare and laudare) compare 76.7. 

87.5-6 Seneca outlines the speech which he would have given if his 
moral character were strong enough. The most important point is treated 
briefly: most people put high value on externals, which a Stoic would 
regard as mere indifferents, and neglect the value of a person's character. 
But the complaint is not a specifically Stoic one; any ancient philosophical 
school would make the same contrast in some form or another. Seneca 
expatiates, however, on a subordinate point, that even on strictly financial 
grounds the wealth of the wealthy is empty — ostentation is offset by 
debt. What is really one' s own is what is left after debts are subtracted. 
Philosophically this is a relatively minor issue, but it illustrates the muddle 
in which most people find themselves even when operating exclusively 
within the realm of conventional values. 

87.6-8 Seneca contrasts what is really our own and what is owed to 
fortune and so not pertinent to an assessment of our worth strictly defined 
(which is determined by how well we fulfill our function and our nature). 
For the idea that non-functional elements in one' s life do not determine 
value, see Epict. Gnom. 15, Ench. 6.1.2, fr. 18 Schenkl (=Stobaeus, Ecl. 
3. 241. 5-15) and cf 124 esp. 124.22-3. Even if one's financial health is 
genuine and one's accounts show a real positive balance, such prosperity is 
actually 'on loan' from fortune and so not really our own. Compare 
also Epict. Gnom. 8. Our true 'net worth', to pursue the metaphor, is only 

LETTER 87 243 

our character. Behind Seneca's play on two kinds of value lies the explicit 
Stoic doctrine about different kinds of value (see Ecl. 2.83. 10-84. 17). 

87.9-10 The example set by Cato the Elder. Despite Cato's high social 
position, political success, service to the state, and personal moral standing, 
his mode of travel and lifestyle were humble. Ostentation in less worthy 
people is even less tolerable. The use of 'a Cato' to indicate a whole 
character type is an instance of the figure of speech Quintilian calls 
emphasis (8.3.83): such a usage 'yields a more profound meaning than the 
words themselves literally express'. For the value of Cato as an exemplary 
moral figure, see on 120. 

'gladiator or beast fighter'. Literally: 'hire himself out to the sword or the 
knife'. These are roles (one of which characteristically uses the sword and 
one the knife) undignified for a man of high social rank. The loss of dignity 
involved in having a man of high rank perform as any sort of entertainer is 
a persistent theme in Neronian society (an anxiety intensified, no doubt, 
by Nero's own 'career' on the stage). Seneca and Epictetus often reflect 
this social reality by making adherence to one's social persona a mark of 
dignity and so of honourableness. Cicero shows the same tendency in Off. 
(1. 115, 1. 124). 

On the various horses, see the note in the Bude ad loc. On the runners cf 

87.11 'impedimenta'. This is a technical term for baggage or equipment 
carried on a journey, especially a military expedition. It also refers to 
obstacles or hindrances. One's personal possessions are thought of as 
heavy objects to be carried about and so as hindrances to one's real work. 
The image of a person 'travelling light' through life has an obvious appeal 
for Seneca. Compare sarcinas at 90.14. 

Note that the announced theme of the dialectical arguments is the 
sufficiency of virtue for a happy life, but all of the arguments deal overtly 
with the good. The relationship of the good to the happy life is taken 
for granted. In contrast to 85, where the theme of the letter comes 
from Lucilius, Seneca himself sets the agenda for the dialectical portion 
which follows. For the style of argument used here (which owes much 
to Peripatetic syllogistic practice) compare Cicero, Fin. 3.26-7 and his 
critique (from the Old Academic perspective, as presented by a Peripatetic) 
at Fin. 4.48. Similar arguments are attributed to Zeno by Seneca at 82.9. 


87. 12—14 First argument and discussion. 

1. What is good makes people good. 

2. Chance things do not make people good. 

3. So chance things are not good. 

Effectively this is a universal negative syllogism in Camestres. The form 
would be better if we had 

1 . All goods make people good. 

2. No chance thing makes people good. 

3. No chance thing is a good thing. 

See Kneale and Kneale 1968: 72. All of the syllogisms in this letter are 
similarly approximate in their formulation but all are meant to be versions 
of Peripatetic rather than Stoic syllogisms. This is appropriate in the 
dialectical context. 

The Peripatetics deny premiss (1) by counting as 'good' things which 
a Stoic would not want to include, 'broad' goods in addition to 'narrow' 
goods (see commentary on 85). (They do not need to deny (2), which 
asserts that the cause of goodness in a person cannot be something 
accidental.) If things extrinsic to a craft count as good, then the possession 
of such goods may fail to contribute to the goodness of the craftsman. 
On the Stoic view, this objection would depend on an equivocation in 
the term 'good' and would not be a view congenial to the Stoics (see the 
discussion of crafts in the commentary on 85.32-41). The Stoic reply (in 
87.13) depends on a rejection of this broader sense of good. In a craft like 
music only skiils and dispositions of the agent count as musical goods; so 
too in the craft of living, the only proper good is a disposition internal to 
the agent. By insisting on this narrowly Stoic sense of a term they can 
defend premiss (1) and apply it to the craft of living as well. 

It is worth noting that vocal ability is treated as being within the art, 
since the organ used to accompany voice is grouped with other instruments 
as being external to the craft. There is, moreover, something odd in the 
claim which the Stoics must consequently make (if they remain within 
the terms of the argument), that the instruments one plays when making 
music should be classed not just as external and so not good, but also as 
'chance things'. Ultimately one would need a more complex classification 
of elements pertinent to an art than the one Seneca uses in this argument. 

87.14 reinforces the rebuttal by differentiating two senses of what is 
'good in music'. In one sense it is what aids a performance and in another 

LETTER 87 245 

it is what aids the art itself (which must mean what contributes to the 
acquisition or maintenance of the art or constitutes its possession). The 
broad sense of 'good' is conceded to apply to the factors which aid a 
performance. But again this is an unsatisfactorily weak analysis of the craft 
and one suspects that it is adopted ad hoc. For surely a piper's pipe is not 
just an aid to her performance but a necessary component of it, and a badly 
made pipe would make practice of the art impossible. A more thorough 
analysis of the factors in a craft is necessary for a stronger response to the 
Peripatetic objection. 

More importantly and perhaps even less plausibly, Seneca asserts that 
the distinction between having the craft and exercising it in performance is 
not relevantly applicable to the craft of living. This dissimilarity between 
the craft of living and the musical craft is noteworthy, since Stoics often 
want to insist on the craft-like features of the philosophical life. Seneca 
claims, in effect, that one cannot have this craft without exercising it (that 
the good of a person and a life are the same). That is perhaps because 
human life has no defmite instruments necessary to its good functioning 
(that is, we can live as effectively without positive external advantages 
as with them). Peripatetics would no doubt want to deny that (relying 
on their conviction that external advantages are often necessary for the 
exercise of virtue), but no fresh arguments are offered here. Similar claims 
are made about the craft of life at the end of 85: even extreme misfortune 
and deprivation leave the wise person able to exercise his or her craft. 

87.15-21 The second argument and discussion. 

1. What can be possessed by the base is not good. 

2. Riches can be possessed by the base. 

3. So riches are not good. 

Effectively this is a syllogism in Celarent, but the form would be better 
if we had 

1. Nothing which can be possessed by the base is good. 

2. All riches can be possessed by the base. 

3. So no riches are good. 

The Peripatetics reply by denying premiss (1): in grammar and medicine 
and navigation the base can possess goods. Seneca's reply is to assert the 
special status of the craft of life, and to deny that the goods aimed at 
by the ordinary crafts are genuine goods. By the end of 87.18 Seneca 
concludes that premiss (1) is indeed correct: 'therefore it is true that what 


even the most despicable man can have is not good.' The claim that there 
is something unique about the craft of life jeopardizes arguments based 
strictly on the craft-like qualities of wisdom. Seneca's view is that the 
peculiar goal of the craft of life makes the moral standing of the artisan 
relevant, so that the good pertinent to the craft of life is constrained in a 
way that the 'good' in other crafts is not. 

This reply is not merely shallow moralizing. In 87.16-17 Seneca claims 
that possession of or commitment to virtue entails certain other evaluative 
commitments: one cannot both be virtuous and regard money as a genuine 
good. But other crafts entail weaker evaluative commitments: one can 
be a brilliant doctor (and so have the kind of 'good' that is relevant to 
medicine) and still erroneously regard money, for example, as a genuine 
good. Note again that the Peripatetic relies on a broad, relativized notion 
of good (there are different goods for different crafts) while the Seneca 
restricts good to the distinctively narrow good of a well-run life. 

87.16 'sewer', etc. See also 119. 

'Swallow' is sexual slang for the female genitalia or the mouth as used 
in fellation. The examples of Swallow and Natalis make the point that 
wealth is compatible with 'moral turpitude' and so not a good. This kind 
of sexual slur is standard fare in (among other genres) comic writing (see 
Grant 2000: 326). 

87. 1 7 Seneca see ms to shift from considering the evaluative commitments 
characteristic of the two kinds of craft to the question, what things can 
the two kinds of craftsmen possess. But he does not intend a distinction 
between evaluative commitments and mere possession. Seneca's point 
turns on the assumption that having something (like money) normally 
involves caring for it as a good ('admiring' it). The crucial point is not 
what the virtuous person can own but the judgements he makes about 
what counts as good. For the claim that virtue is its own standard as well 
as the judge for other things, see also 71.20. We should not conclude 
from this passage that Seneca is committed to the view that a philosopher 
cannot be wealthy; compare his views in De Vita Beata. 

87.18 reprises the themes of 87.6-8 and of 87.16. The comparision of a 
wealthy person to the purse which contains money is particularly effective. 
Just as the bag is the mere container or adjunct of wealth and not an added 
source of value, so the wealthy person is a mere adjunct of the wealth and 

LETTER 87 247 

has no personal value beyond the limited value of his or her money. What 
is being emphasized is the difference between the kind of value used to 
assess people, their characters and their lives, and the kind used to assess 
externals like wealth. Hence at the end of 87.18 Seneca states briefly the 
source of value that a wise person has — the internal state of the agent. 

87.19-21 Any putative good that can be shared with other species of 
animals cannot be a good. This is a broadening of the claim that an alleged 
good that can be shared with morally base people cannot be a good. This 
relies on the Stoic doctrine that the genuine good is a feature of rational 
animals (see especially 124. 7-15) — it is, therefore, a human proprium 
shared only with the gods. 

The special status of virtue is illustrated by the conceit that the genuine 
good has its own region — the mind — just as other 'goods' (such as the 
sources of wealth listed in the quotation from Vergil's Georgics 1.53-6) 
have their own special regions. The incommensurable value of the good 
is indicated by the observation that unlike commodities the good cannot 
be imported and exported from one region to another. The separateness 
of the mind's good from other things is presented as a requirement 
for its connection to god. Minimally interpreted this merely means that 
rationality (which is found only in minds) is the foundation of the linkage 
between god and man, but the language of divine purity and separateness 
underlines the wider claim about the incommensurability of the good and 
other values (such as wealth). 


1 . Good does not come from bad. 

2. Riches come from greed [and greed is bad]. 

3. So riches are not good. 

Effectively this is a syllogism in Cesare, but the form would be better if 
we had 

1. No good comes from bad. 

2. All riches come from bad (i.e., greed). 

3. So no riches are good. 

The Peripatetics deny (1) on the grounds that money comes from bad 
things — but Seneca effectively allows for this in (2). So the reply is 
actually question-begging; it involves the simple assumption that riches 
are good. 


Why would Seneca advance such a weak argument? Lucilius and his 
readers already know that the Peripatetic value theory allows that riches are 
a kind of good, so the reason is unlikely to be a desire to inform the reader 
about their position. One possibility is that it allows Seneca to introduce 
quantitative consequentialist reasoning (temple robbery and theft produce 
more good than bad). This employs the broad notion of good, of course, 
but also gives the discussion which follows an anti-Epicurean function: 
see, for example, KD 35 where Epicurus claims that unjust behaviour 
costs us more (because of the distress caused by fear of detection) than can 
be gained from the injustice. 

87.23-4 point out that such quantitative reasoning leads to the notion 
of 'partly good' things, such as temple robbery, which can lead to wealth 
whatever else it may cause. But it is absurd on Stoic (narrow) conceptual 
grounds that a vicious aet should be partly good. If it were partly good, 
then it would also be partly honourable. Since all goods are equal (see 
66, D.L. 7.101, Cicero, Fin. 3.69), something which is 'partly' good must 
have all the features of the good. An action which participates in good to 
any extent would be equal in goodness to all other actions. 

'straight deed'. The transmitted text has been doubted here (the Bude 
has emended it heavily), but it produces good sense if interpreted prop- 
erly. The idea is that all actions which are good will be right actions 
{katorthomata), and if an aet of temple robbery is something for which 
we are responsible (nostra actio) and is also to any degree good, then on 
Stoic theory it turns out to be a right action. (Compare 66.33 f° r tne idea 
that the quality of an action is determined by the quality of mind which 
lies behind it.) The idea of partial goodness, which raises the prospect of 
consequentialist moral reasoning, is thus exploded, Seneca thinks. Below 
he arrives at the notion of 'partly advantageous' things, an idea that works 
well since it does not depend on the narrow conception of good. 

87.24-5 The suggestion that vice is its own punishment often relies 
on consequentialist claims (that fear of detection makes injustice a bad 
strategy); see for example the tale of Gyges' ring in Republic 2, Cicero Off. 
3.38-40, eta; its Epicurean credentials are also clear: see Epicurus, KD 
35. But Seneca is arguing on conceptual grounds that one cannot accept 
this kind of consequentialist reasoning. It is not the anxiety occasioned by 
the fear of detection which makes greed and injustice a poor choice, but 
the very nature of good and bad actions. The tight connection between 

LETTER 87 249 

the good and virtue which is characteristic of the 'narrow' Stoic theory is 
essential to the success of this argument. But Seneca also claims that it is 
inconceivable that good can be caused by bad — which here seems to be a 
question-begging claim against the Peripatetics. Seneca goes on to engage 
with Stoics who meet the Peripatetic challenge in a spirit of compromise. 
See 87.26-7. 

87.25 The claim that the quality of an action determined by its source 
is supported by botanical examples — a style of illustration for conceptual 
truths used by early Stoics too — see Schofield 1983. This is also a 
reference to Lucretius (1. 159-73). 

'betray their lineage' (degenerare), i.e., change from its proper genus to 
another, is a further biological illustration. 

87.26-7 Seneca reports and rejects a Stoic argument against the Peri- 
patetic theory. Some Stoics, unlike Seneca, will concede for the sake of 
argument that money as such is a good; they do not actually hold that 
view, but it is a dialectical concession to their Peripatetic interlocutors. 
They go on to differentiate between the source of money and where it 
comes from. This permits them to distinguish between the circumstances 
which lead to the acquisition of the money and the wickedness of the 
acquisition. Hence the illustration: the jar represents the circumstances 
and the snake illustrates the wickedness. It may in practice be impossible 
to extract the gold without disturbing the snake; but on this view the 
gold is not bad and the snake is; one does not pursue the gold because 
of the snake. The application of this illustration permits these Stoics to 
distinguish the bad-making features of an impious action (the snake) from 
its gain-producing features (the gold) and so to argue that the connection 
between them is merely contingent. Hence the gain is not itself morally 
bad though the crime which yields it is. 

This Stoic response seems to respect Stoic value theory (once one 
allows for the dialectical concession); it would also work if they treated 
wealth as a preferrred indifferent. For wealth is itself an indifferent 
(and so not intrinsically bad); though in various circumstances it may be 
dispreferred for various reasons having to do with moral training, it is 
never a bad thing in itself. (Seneca knows this well and indeed argues 
for it elsewhere; see, e.g., 110. 14-20, 20.13, and Tranq. An. 8-9.) So 
these Stoics are simply pointing out that in a case of impious gain we 
can and should distinguish between the features of the situation which 


are vicious and those which are not. This response has the advantage of 
encouraging a debate with Peripatetics about wealth; it also seems to make 
possible a defence of ill-gotten gain of the sort which has given casuistry 
a bad name. 

Why, then, does Seneca reject this approach in 87.27? He claims that 
the illustration is not relevantly similar to the case he is considering. In 
principle one could extract the gold from the jar without disturbing the 
snake, however hard it might be to do so in practice. But in the case of 
impious gain one cannot even in principle get the gain without committing 
the temple robbery; the connection between gain and vice is more intimate 
than that between snake and gold (we should think of it as mixture rather 
than juxtaposition). 

The difference between the two Stoic approaches seems to be that the 
other Stoics are interested in the general question of the relationship of 
wealth to vice and in the contingent relationship between vice/virtue and 
the indifferents. Seneca's interests differ in two ways. As the rest of the 
letter shows, he is particularly sensitive to the impact of one's theory on 
the efficacy of moral training; the rejected approach would be riskier in 
that context. Seneca is perhaps concentrating on particular cases (say, an 
instance of temple robbery, the stereotypicai example of impious gain) 
rather than on the more general issue in value theory. In a particular 
case the action and the gain cannot be separated, since the motivations of 
the agent determine the evaluation of the action (see on 87.28-34). This 
token-oriented approach to ethics is characteristic of Aristo of Chios more 
than other Stoics. 


1 . That which when desired leads to many bad outcomes is not good. 

2. Riches when desired lead to many bad outcomes. 

3. So riches are not good. 

This is effectively a syllogism in Celarent, but the form would be better 
if we had 

1. Nothing which when desired leads to many bad outcomes is good. 

2. All riches when desired lead to many bad outcomes. 

3. So no riches are good. 

The argument here turns on the outcomes characteristically following from 
certain motivations rather than from certain actions. The moral standing of 
wealth in the abstract is not at issue, but rather the moral impact of wealth 

LETTER 87 251 

as an object of desire. (This is not a surprising qualification, since all along 
it is the role played by wealth in our moral lives which has been at issue. 
But see above on 87.26-7.) The argument is consequentialist in nature if 
'bad' is understood in a broad sense (including dispreferred indifferents). 
And that surely is the sense of 'bad' in question — as is suggested by the 
plurality of possible bad outcomes (on a narrow understanding the only 
bad things are vice and what participate in it) and by the examples offered 
in 87.28 (shipwreck and kidnap). 

The Stoic willingness to use a consequentialist line of argument betrays 
a refreshing lack of narrowness and an openness to debate on their 
opponents' terms. But Seneca himself has already revealed a preference 
for a narrower approach. His reason for introducing this argument here, 
then, must be questioned. This approach to the topic prepares the reader 
for the discussion of Posidonius' contribution at 87.31-7. 

In their reply (87.28-9), the Peripatetics (represented by Seneca's 
imaginary objector) posit an ambiguity in premiss (1). On one interpre- 
tation they will deny (1), on the grounds that virtue when desired also 
leads to bad outcomes in the same sense as wealth does and yet virtue is 
agreed to be a good. This suggests that the Stoics are vulnerable when 
they employ consequentialist arguments. On the other interpretation the 
opponents assume a much stronger causal connection between the object 
of desire and the outcome; we are led to the bad outcomes 'through it' 
rather than just 'when we desire to get it'. The Stoics are then confronted 
with a dilemma. Either we are not led to bad outcomes through riches (in 
which case premiss (1) must be withdrawn and there is no argument). 
Or if the causal link between wealth and bad outcomes is strong enough 
that through is the appropriate description, then wealth should be not just 
not good but actually bad. This is a conclusion stronger than the Stoics 
want to draw, since their view is that riches are indifferent (preferred or 
dispreferred depending on the circumstances). 

But this Peripatetic argument itself rests on an ambiguity. For the 
conclusion of the second arm of the dilemma only holds if bad is taken in a 
narrow sense (for what causally generates vice participates in vice and so is 
bad); but if 'bad outcomes' are interpreted as referring to the same sorts of 
dispreferred situations as were invoked in 87.28 (shipwreck and kidnap) 
then there is no reason why those causes should be regarded as bad. 

A further objection is meant to reinforce the unwelcome conclusion that 
the Stoics won't be able to claim that riches are a preferred indifferent. 
The claim is that by relying on the premiss that wealth leads to many bad 
outcomes the Stoics are barred from holding that wealth can be useful. 


This is obviously wrong. With 'bad' taken in the broad sense it can be 
simultaneously true that many bad consequences follow from wealth taken 
generally and that many advantageous consequences follow from it. And 
as long as the latter claim is sometimes true, the Stoic position can be 
consistently maintained. This Peripatetic objection would only succeed if 
it were an essential characteristic of wealth to bring 'bad' outcomes in its 
wake, and the Stoics do not hold that position. 

87.30 Seneca reports a reply to the Peripatetic criticism: riches do not 
cause disadvantageous results, character flaws do. Note here the Stoic use 
of 'disadvantageous' rather than 'bad' as in premiss (1). This removes all 
uncertainty about the sense of 'bad' in play in the argument. However, if 
you rewrite premiss (1) with 'disadvantageous' for 'bad', then its appeal 
is reduced: no one need accept the premiss that something which when 
desired leads to many disadvantageous outcomes is not morally good. 

The analysis offered in this section is sound on general Stoic principles. 
It is our character states which determine the moral status of our actions. 
The means we employ to carry out our intentional actions do not in 
themselves determine their moral status. So the killer's weapon is guilt- 
free and wealth is not bad. If we imagine a case in which wealth plays a 
role in the generation of bad outcomes (in either the broad or the narrow 
sense), the real causal work is done by the bad character of the agent 
and the wealth is at most a contributory factor. Note that Seneca uses a 
distinct term for the causal relationship he envisages here: 'on account of 
{propter) rather than 'through' {per). 

Why, then, is Seneca not content with this reply to the Peripatetics? 
This argument would seem to be 'better' from a Stoic point of view 
than one which relies on the ambiguity of the term 'bad' in premiss (1). 
The reason becomes clear in the next section, in which on Posidonius' 
interpretation one can retain premiss (1) in terpre ted in a narrow sense. It 
is clear that Seneca is highly motivated to retain premiss (1) stripped of 
its problematic consequentialist interpretation. 

87.31-40 Seneca's use of Posidonius here provides an opportunity to 
improve our understanding not just of Posidonius' own theory but also 
of how Seneca uses earlier Stoics as raw material. Kidd (1985: 1-21) 
examines these issues and includes a detailed analysis of this section of 
87; Kidd 1955 also addresses this issue, arguing that Posidonius retained 
the earlier Stoic view that wealth is an indifferent and that virtue is 
sufficient for happiness, against the evidence of D.L. 7.128, and that his 

LETTER 87 253 

main innovation as reported in 87 is his focus on individual psychological 
states as causes of moral failure, rather than on external influences (Kidd 
1985: 19). 

87.31-4 Seneca retains premiss (1) by developing Posidonius' views on 
the psychological dynamics of temptation. This will leave a causal role for 
riches sufficient to show that they are consistently to be avoided (even if 
they are not bad in the narrow sense). 

For the contrast between 'efficient' and 'antecedent' causes here, 
compare the terminology at 65.14 ('efficient' vs 'subsequent' causes). 
In the present context it might be better to translate efficiens as 'effective' 
rather than 'efficient', but the verbal connection to 65 is worth retaining. 

The key distinction (87.31) is between 'efficient' causes (states of 
character, in this case) and 'antecedent' causes (essentially, stimuli or 
temptations, occasions on which a weak character would inevitably be 
drawn to erroneous choices). On normal Stoic theory antecedent causes 
are not central to moral evaluation. Although we are tempted by an 
appearance of wealth, for example, we make the choice to pursue it in 
virtue of our character state, which is fundamentally responsible for our 
choice. This character state and the choice produced by it are what counts 
as good or bad. Riches have nothing more than antecedent causality with 
regard to bad character. For the Stoic terminology used for various kinds 
of causation, see LS 55 and 62C with commentary and Frede 1980. Causa 
efficiens here corresponds roughly to Cicero's causa perfecta et principalis 
while causa praecedens corresponds roughly to causa adiuvans et proxima 
(Fat. 41 = LS 62C 5). 

Having shown that wealth can make a causal contribution to what is bad 
in a narrow sense, Seneca returns in 87.32 to premiss (1) of the argument. 
Seneca does not have to claim that wealth is a direct efficient cause of 
what is bad in the narrow sense; mere antecedent causation of the bad 
is enough to deprive wealth of the 'purity' which Seneca here claims is 
a necessary feature of the good. This purity requires that the good not 
contribute even indirectly to a vicious state of character. The contrast 
between the states of mind produced by virtue and by wealth reinforces 
the difference in their moral standing. This distinction shows that virtue 
(a true good) has no antecedent causality with regard to bad character, 
so that the Peripatetic attempt (in 87.28) to assimilate virtue to riches as 
being a cause of bad outcomes fails. In 87.28, though, the 'bad' outcomes 
were merely disadvantageous (shipwreck and kidnapping) and here they 
are actual moral failings. 


87.33-4 Again the Peripatetic tries to show that the Stoic position leads 
to a conclusion which is stronger than they wish, that is, that wealth is bad 
rather than merely not good (and so indifferent, preferred or dispreferred 
depending on the context). 

Seneca's reply, denial that riches are bad rather than indifferent, is 
based on the distinction of antecedent and effective causality which he 
takes from Posidonius (though it is a distinction also made by Chrysippus, 
see Cic. Fat. 41 = LS 62C). Seneca does not rely solely on the distinction 
between kinds of causality. He argues that mere antecedent causation of a 
'narrow' bad is sufficient to establish that something is bad. The evidence 
for this is that virtue itself can provide antecedent causation for the bad 
character state 'envy'. Seneca must here be considering the antecedent 
causation of character states in non-virtuous people, since wealth would 
not tempt a wise person. Moreover, it was pointed out in 87.32 that the 
purity of the good means that we do not get 'puffed up' because we possess 
it. The special standing of virtue as a temptation to bad character states 
lies in two considerations. First, that the possessor of virtue (unlike the 
possessor of wealth) is immune to the temptation merely by possessing 
it. Second, that the temptations of wealth turn on providing a 'plausible' 
appearance of goodness to the many, while even for the many virtue is not 
a plausible stimulus of envy but rather of awe and admiration. 

87-35 - 7 Having turned to Posidonius for assistance in his rebuttal of 
Peripatetic objections, Seneca also outlines Posidonius' positive argument. 
Like the rebuttal, it relies on the causal contributions made by things to 
our character states. 

1. What does not produce virtuous states in the soul is not good. 

2. Riches and health etc. do not produce virtuous states in the soul. 

3. So riches etc. are not good. 

Effectively this is a syllogism in Celarent, but the form would be better 
if we had 

1. Nothing that does not produce virtuous states in the soul is good. 

2. All riches, etc. do not produce virtuous states in the soul. 

3. So no riches, etc. are good. 

As a report of Posidonius' views on the nature of the good, this is 
controversial. It appears tocontradictD.L. 7.128. For discussion see Kidd 
1955 and 1985, and I. Hadot 1969: 73, n. 184. 

LETTER 87 255 

Riches, health, etc. are preferred indifferents {cotntnoda); that this is the 
sense of cotntnoda is demonstrated by Kidd 1985: 17. Such things clearly 
lack effective causality. But do they also lack antecedent causality? That 
is, might one not be drawn towards virtue and moral progress by a desire 
for health and wealth? Seneca clearly thinks not. Hence 'produce' in this 
argument no doubt refers to effective causation. This argument, then, 
is fully in accord with mainstream Stoicism. But is this also true of 
Posidonius' second argument, which is meant to make a stronger claim? 

1. What produces vicious states in the soul is bad. 

2. The products of chance produce vicious states in the soul. 

3. So the products of chance are not good. 

This is effectively a syllogism in Barbara, though this interpretation 
requires that we add a further argument to show that all bad things are 
not good. The form would be better if we had 

Everything that produces vicious states in the soul is bad. 
All products of chance produce vicious states in the soul. 
So all products of chance are bad. 
All things that are bad are not good. 
So all products of chance are not good. 

The second argument works only by equivocation on the distinction 
between effective and antecedent causes established in 87.33. For the 
products of chance do not efficiently cause vicious states in the soul, though 
they do antecedently cause them. Posidonius' intensified argument, then, 
seems to be little more than a rhetorical flourish. 

87.35 'greatness or confidence or calmness in the soul'. The terminology 
here is typically Senecan but the idea is compatible with Posidonius' views 
(see Kidd 1985: 14-15). 

87.36-7 The extended Posidonian argument is criticized on the grounds 
that the products of chance won't even be 'advantageous' (that is, preferred 
indifferents) if we accept this argument. But that scarcely seems to follow, 
since the argument is actually about good and bad rather than indifferents. 
Seneca, perhaps deliberately, portrays the Peripatetics as being insensitive 
to the difference between the two categories of value. Hence he objects 
to the reply by insisting on the categorical difference between goods and 
preferred indifferents. Note here the sense of condicio, which it also has 
at 66.5 (see commentary ad loc). It might also be rendered 'category' to 


indicate the fundamental difference between the two scales of evaluation 
in Stoic theory. The terminological separation between the two categories 
is preserved by the use of different words for the positive results of the two 
kinds of value: usus and molestia are the result of preferred and dispreferred 
indifferents (that is, advantageous and disadvantageous things), where as 
prodesse (benefit) is used for the result of the good. The former can be 
assessed by a consequentialist calculation of the amount of positive and 
negative in a situation. But true benefit admits of no calculated trade-offs 
because of its purity. 

The outcome is clear: consequentialist reasoning only works for indif- 
ferents and not for goods. Posidonius' blunder in his extended argument 
serves to show what goes wrong when one tries to argue consequential- 
ly about the good. By showing up Posidonius' error, Seneca preserves 
his independence as a Stoic, following no authority in a partisan or 
exclusivist spirit. 

In 87.37 Seneca points out that the good (the truly beneficial) is a 
feature only of the virtuous. Others, whether human or animal, utter fools 
or merely imperfect progressors, have no virtue and so in their cases there 
is no true benefit which might, even theoretically, be compared to their 
advantages. We note that Seneca seems to preserve a notional difference 
between fools and the imperfect, while at the same time contrasting them 
both with the genuinely wise. 

87.37 'greater part'. This is a reflection of the consequentialist calculation 
of advantage which is compatible with indifferents. Indifferents may be 
balanced against each other in a calculus of advantage while good and bad 
may not. 

87.38-9 The final 'knot' — a reminder that the dialectical portion of the 
letter is to be understood as a self-conscious exercise, though the dialectic 
does deal with a serious and appropriate topic. The term nodus for this 
kind of puzzling dialectical difficulty is not Ciceronian. In Seneca it occurs 
at 45.5, 82.19, 85.1, 117. 31, and in Ben. S- 12 - 2 — which comes from the 
same period of Seneca's life as the letters (after ad 56). (We know from 
81.3 that at least part of Ben., books 1-4, had been written by the time 
81 was composed. Griffin 1992: appendix A suggests on weak grounds 
that Ben. had been completed by AD 62.) The metaphor of a knot goes 
well with the idea (frequently expressed by Aristotle) that an aporia is 
something that needs to be 'loosened' or 'untied' (lusis, lueiri). 

LETTER 87 257 

Unlike the Stoic syllogisms above, this is a sophism posed by the 
Peripatetics. The judgement that it is a sophism seems to originate with 
Posidonius, but Seneca endorses it. Nothing in this letter sheds light on 
the question of just what makes it a sophism (though see 117.25, where, 
however, the word may be used in a different sense). If the point here is 
reliance on an equivocal premiss, then this argument might be thought to 
be too similar to the other arguments in the letter. More likely, perhaps, 
is the suggestion, made by Terry Irwin in discussion, that the problem 
is reliance on a fallacy of composition. The faet that it is posed and 
solved by Peripatetics makes it suitable for discussion in the context of 
Peripatetic criticisms of Stoic syllogisms, but represents another aspect 
of the long debate about the status of the indifferents. Apparently in 
wide circulation, the sophism was 'solved' by Antipater as well as by the 
Peripatetics themselves. See further remarks on sophisms in the letters in 
the commentary to 106.2-3. 

1. The good is not made up of what is bad. 

2. Riches are made up of many instances of poverty [and poverty is 

3. So riches are not good. 

Again, a syllogism effectively in Cesare, though the form would be better 
if we had 

1. No good is made up of what is bad. 

2. All riches are made up of what is bad, i.e., instances of poverty. 

3. So no riches are good. 

The syllogism (for which see also Kidd 1985: 17-18) consistently uses the 
broad notion of good and bad. That is presumably why the Stoic school 
does not 'accept' it. We have no evidence as to how the Peripatetics would 
have solved the sophism and can only guess as to why they posed it; a 
reasonable guess would be that the solution of a bad argument to show 
that riches are not good would dialectically strengthen the view that riches 
are good. 

The solution Seneca discusses was advanced by Antipater of Tarsus, 
a Stoic with a known penchant for dialectic {SVF 3. Antipater 16-31, 
where he is often paired with Chrysippus). Hence it is apt that the solution 
to the sophism is semantic in nature and uses Peripatetic jargon (steresis). 
It is significant for our understanding of the Hellenistic Peripatos that 
Antipater was engaged in solving a Peripatetic sophism in Peripatetic- 
sounding terms in the second century bc. This may suggest that we should 


think of Critolaus as the author of the sophism. Antipater denies premiss 
(2) of the sophism by insisting that 'poverty' is a privative term, indicating 
an absence, negation, or lack; since no positive sum can be generated by 
adding up any number of absences, any amount of poverty cannot add up 
to riches. But if we defined poverty as, e.g., 'a small amount of money' 
then one could eventually add up lots of poverty to produce wealth. 

87.39 'removal'. The Latin word is detractio, which might also be 
rendered 'omission' though that is not the usual sense in Seneca. However 
it is translated here, it is clear that the 'ancient' term orbatio ('privation') 
is the preferable translation for the Greek term. 

87.40 Seneca concludes the letter by pulling back from his engagement 
with the dialectic. He claims that Antipater's solution of the sophism 
would be easier to present if he had a Latin term for 'non-existence'. 
Just as in 87.39 a Greek term had to be invoked to report the sophism 
(and Seneca offers both an up-to-date and an obsolete Latin term for the 
Greek steresis) so here he emphasizes that he would need a Latin technical 
term for anhuparxia. As in 58, we see Seneca's interest both in how Greek 
technical terms can be expressed in Latin and in obsolete Latin words. 

Since Antipater's point seems perfectly clear without a Latin neologism, 
one might wonder why Seneca takes this view here. It helps in detaching 
himself and the reader from engagement with the dialectic and in returning 
to what he portrays as practically applicable morality. Perhaps the theme 
of a need for something beyond Latin words to capture the sense of this 
sophism and solution suggests that for serious moral dialectic Latin terms 
suffice, that it is only frivolities that require neologisms and Greek technical 
terms. For the suggestion that Seneca's opposition is not to dialectic as such 
but only to quibbling, see Barnes 1997:18-20. Contrast I. Hadot 1969: 
1 10, who cites 49.5 among other texts as evidence of Seneca's 'massive' 
rejection of dialectic. This seems overstated. Cooper 2004 includes 87 in 
his list of letters establishing Seneca's contempt for dialectic and technical 
philosophy generally, but without detailed discussion. However, even in 
49.6 Seneca expresses a more nuanced position. 

87.40-1 The conclusion of the letter. Seneca exploits the language of 
the law courts (litigare de verbis, quasi iam de rebus iudicatum sit) to dismiss 
what has become a trivial issue (87.40). The contrast of words and things is 
highly reminiscent of Antiochus' approach to inter-school disagreements, 
as presented by Cicero. 

LETTER 87 259 

'essences'. The Latin term is substantia. Seneca seems prepared to dismiss 
the debate about the exact understanding of wealth and poverty and to 
deal with their attributes (contrary to the Socratic insistence that we must 
know what something is before we investigate its attributes — Meno 71b), 
but this is no doubt because the need for the distinction has only arisen 
from consideration of an admitted sophism. None of the more serious 
dialectic above seemed to require full consideration of the 'what is it' 
question in this technical form. It seems likely that Seneca has 'allowed' 
the dialectic to degenerate into apparently pointless technicality in order 
to make the point that this kind of dialectic, whatever its uses, is not the 
only or best way of engaging in serious moral debate. Since 87 is the final 
letter in a sequence dealing with dialectic, his decision to conclude the 
letter with the rejection of a sophism that stands in contrast to serious 
dialectic may reflect a desire to mark the difference between good and bad 

Seneca concludes with a scenario drawn from practice of Roman 
deliberative rhetoric — reminiscent of the suasoria (87.41, NB suadere). He 
imagines a debate about the abolition of wealth and outlines in summary 
form the kind of arguments that would be used in support of this measure in 
a political forum. In such a context, he claims, the issue of wealth should be 
håndled with elliptical examples drawn from historical experience and the 
invocation of various prejudices about the causes of political dominance. 
It is important to acknowledge how limited Seneca's claims are here: he 
is not saying that the syllogisms to which he has devoted 7/8 of the letter 
are useless, but rather that in a public deliberative context they will fail 
and should be replaced with arguments that would be persuasive before 
an audience of citizens rather than in a specialized philosophical forum. 
See the acute remarks of Barnes 1997: 17-18. This position is reminiscent 
of the stance which Cicero often takes about the proper form of moral 
suasion. On this topic, see I. Hadot 1969: 187-90. 

There seems to be no direct argumentative or theoretical connection 
between the expressed preference for suasio over dialectic and the sub- 
stantial issue of whether passions should be moderated (the Peripatetic 
position) or eliminated (the Stoic view). Yet 87.41 links these two issues 
closely. The general effect is that moral exhortation of a non-technical 
kind will persuade the audience to adopt a rigourist position on issues 
like wealth and on the passions. (Cf. Cancik 1967: 38-9.) But while 
the progressive degeneration of the dialectic about wealth may support 
the claim that rhetorical persuasion will work better than dialectic when 
urging that wealth is not a good, the reader has been offered no explicit 


reason so far to agree that such rhetorical argumentation will be more 
effective in gaining agreement that the passions should be eliminated 
rather than moderated. Nevertheless in Stoic theory the connection is 
clear. A passion like greed rests on a false belief about wealth (i.e., that 
it is good). Complete elimination of the passion requires being convinced 
that wealth is not a good, whereas the Peripatetic believes that wealth is a 
minor good and so can hold that the passion for it should be minimized 
but need not be utterly eliminated. But the connection has not yet been 
drawn explicitly. 

(LETTERS 1 06, 113 AND 117) 

Cooper 2004 is one of the few serious discussions of 106, 113, and 117, 

the letters which make up this group. He argues that Seneca's rejection 
of and indifference to various technical aspects of Stoic theory in these 
letters is misguided and undermines his philosophical position. See my 
general discussion in the commentary on 85 above and compare the subtle 
views taken over fifty years ago by A. D. Leeman in a series of important 
articles (Leeman 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954). 

These three letters deal with the relationship between Stoic metaphysics 
and ethics. 106 addresses the question 'Is the good a body?' 113 asks 
whether virtues are animals. 117 tackles a subtle problem about the 
relationship between wisdom and 'being wise': if the former is a good, 
is not the latter also a good? All three letters conclude by putting into 
question the philosophical value of the very investigation undertaken by 
Seneca in the letters. This trio of letters provides a clear illustration of 
Seneca's independence of mind with respect to his own school. 

Commentary on 106 

Thematic division 

1-3: Setting and theme. 'Is the good a body?' 
3-10: Arguments for the affirmative. 
1 1 -12: The conclusion. 

In this letter Seneca fully supports the central Stoic position at issue, 
that only bodies can have causal impact. See below on 106. 11 — 12. 

In this letter Seneca puts considerable emphasis on the epistolary 
apparatus. In apologizing for a late reply, he takes the opportunity to 
assert (as he often does in the letters, see Introduction, p. xxi) the 
importance of controlling one's own time and taking responsibility for 
doing so. His own 'excuse' for not replying sooner is not 'the press 


of obligations' but the faet that he had been seriously engaged on a major 
project when the request came, so that he needed time to consider the 
proper course of action (see 106.2 itaque dubitavi: 'and so I hesitated'). 

106. 1 'so is everyone who wants to be'. This casual confidence about 
the availability of free time is an indication of intended audience for the 
letters: elite Romans who command the resources necessary for genuine 
leisure. Presumably Seneca's view that time is particularly scarce and 
valuable would apply even more strictly to those who are not members 
of a social elite, but the suggestion that anyone can find the time for 
philosophical activities if they set their mind to it may seem unrealistic to 
those who must work to support themselves and their families. Still, the 
Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was well known for having had to do hard 
physical labour to make possible his philosophical studies (D.L. 7.168). 

106.2-3 The comprehensive work Seneca says he is preparing is sup- 
posed to be an organized presentation of all the important topics in ethics 
(109 also develops a theme pulled out of sequence from that work in 
progress for Lucilius' benefit, as is shown by 108. 1 and 109.17); see 
Leeman 1953: 309-10. The issue of dealing with a topic out of sequence 
suggests that Seneca already has a fixed outline of themes and the order of 
their presentation. We are to picture him, then, as being right in the middle 
of executing his plan. As a parallel for Seneca's willingness to take an issue 
out of its intended order as a concession to Lucilius' interests, consider the 
opening paragraph of On Providence, where Seneca explains to Lucilius 
that it would be better to reply to his question in the context of a general 
treatise, but then proceeds to reply immediately despite his misgivings. 

The comment that Lucilius is 'someone who has come so far' invokes a 
retrospective assessment of Lucilius' development as a philosopher. This 
fits well with the surprising question he asks here — we note that the 
theme of the letter is supposed to be set by him — surprising at least for 
its metaphysical technicality: is the good a body? Seneca associates this 
topic with a range of others which he has apparently planned to include in 
his magnum opus — a set of issues that is 'more pleasant than beneficial to 
know' (cf. Ben. 6.1). We might well wonder why Seneca was planning to 
write extensively on such questions (after all, he was under no compulsion 
to deal with 'all the questions which pertain to' ethics any more than he 
was compelled to write the more abstruse portions of the De Beneficiis 
about which he makes similarly deprecatory comments at many points; see 
especially the prefaces to books 5 and 6). Given his plan to deal with such 

LETTER 1 06 263 

questions in his treatise, it is particularly odd that at the end of the letter 
(106.11-12) Seneca returns to disparagement of this topic and portrays 
his handling of it as a concession to Lucilius. 

Per haps the explanation is that such issues are not at all a waste of time 
when dealt with in a treatise where they will fit into an orderly context, 
but do seem to require special justification when dealt with in a letter; 
epistolary philosophy, perhaps, must meet a higher standard of practical 
relevance. If so, this offers helpful insight into Seneca's views about what 
is valuable in philosophy, an insight which mitigates the impression left 
by several letters that he regards himself as dealing with unimportant or 
frivolous topics. If readers' expectations of what they will find in letters 
are as suggested, we should perhaps see Seneca's apologetic introduction 
of technicality not as a betrayal of his own principles but rather as an 
attempt to extend technical philosophy into an otherwise inhospitable 
genre; that is, far from indicating his distaste for technicality it would 
be a mark of his enthusiasm for it (for a sense of how excited Lucilius 
is supposed to be by such technical discussions, see 108.39, where the 
technical theme he has asked about (res spinosa) should be heard with 'erect 
and attentive ears'). See Demetrius, Eloc. 230-1 on the topics suitable 
for philosophical letters; sophismata are excluded and perhaps Seneca's 
metaphysical technicalities would be treated in the same way (though 
Seneca distinguishes sophisms (cavilhtiones) from simple technicality 
(subtilitas, see 106.11)). For further suggestions along these lines, see 
Inwood forthcoming and above, Introduction, pp. xii-xviii. 

Leeman 1953: 310 argued that 'Seneca's plan to write a comprehensive 
work on ethics . . . was the real cause of the attention paid to dialectics 
in the lettters'. This estimation of what the treatise contained is based 
solely on what Seneca tells us in 106, 108, and 109. The independently 
preserved evidence about the contents of the treatise (see Haase frr. 
119-24, vol. 3, 443-4) does not confirm this suggestion. Though our 
information comes only from Lactantius and so may not be representative 
of the original treatise's character, it is worth noting that the fragments 
are completely devoid of the dialectical and metaphysical technicality 
which Leeman's line of reasoning would lead us to expect. For all we 
know, the treatise was used as an excuse for introducing technicality into 
the letter and was not in faet the 'real cause' for the metaphysical and 
dialectical complexity of these later letters. And if that is so, then it is 
very likely that Seneca included this material because of his interest in its 
philosophical value and deprecated it only in deference to the conventions 
of the epistolary genre. 


Finally, we should note that Seneca aggressively asserts his right to 
control the choice of topic in his letters (cf. 58.6, 87.1): 'I shall send them 
along to you on my own, even if you don't ask.' 

106.3 The corporeal nature of the good is restated (though in a stronger 
version of the thesis) at 117.2, for essentially the same reasons as are 
adduced here. A very similar issue (whether the virtues are animals) is the 
topic of 113. Hence 106 can be seen as the first of a series of letters dealing 
with the relationship of Stoic corporealism to ethics — about which Seneca 
expresses strong but not unreasonable views. It might help to consider 
Seneca's sympathetic interest in Aristo (who denied the relevance of 
physics and logic to philosophy) as pertinent background. 

On conventional Stoic theory (see D.L. 7.94), the 'good' is understood 
as something beneficial and hence as virtue or what participates in virtue 
(see also Ecl. 2.57.21-2, 2.78.3). Virtue is a disposition of the material soul 
and its participants would be human beings and their material attributes 
(see also S. E. M. 1 1.22-7). Virtuous actions are also counted as good, 
since they 'participate' in virtue, though they do so in a different way than 
virtuous friends do (see also Ecl. 2.70. 10- 1 1). For the goodness of an action 
is determined by the goodness of the disposition which generates it, while 
the goodness of a person consists in the faet that he or she is qualified in a 
certain way (S. E. M, 11.23, savs tnat virtue is the hegemonikon pos echon). 

In 1 17.3 Seneca insists that only a body is good, a view which is more 
strict than what we see expressed in most of the standard doxographical 
accounts and which rests heavily on the metaphysical distinction between 
an action (which is a predicate and so an incorporeal) and a disposition 
(which is a body). This metaphysical distinction plays an important role 
in the doxographical account of ethics in Stobaeus, especially at Ecl. 
2.76-8, where the doxographer distinguishes sharply between happiness 
(a bodily state of the soul) and being happy (a predicate). At Ecl. 2.78.7-12 
a sharp metaphysical distinction is drawn between what is worth choosing 
(haireton) and what is to be chosen (haireteon): the virtue, i.e., bodily 
disposition of the soul, 'prudence' is worth choosing and the predicate 
'being prudent' is to be chosen. Yet even here it is made clear that the 
predicate 'being prudent' obtains with respect to the soul in virtue of the 
the disposition of the soul, which is a corporeal feature of it. In this context 
the term 'good' seems to be used more restrictively — properly speaking 
only the bodily disposition is good and the predicates which flow from 
it (labelled ophelemata, advantages) are understood as consisting in the 
possession of the good rather than as being good. 

LETTER 1 06 265 

From the rest of Stobaeus' account and from the evidence in D.L. and 
Sextus, we may conclude that it was perfectly normal Stoic usage to say 
that virtuous actions are good because of their relationship to virtue. Since 
we know that Seneca is aware of these subtleties, his decision to restrict 
himself to a simpler argument here (merely to show that it is right to hold 
that the good is a body) is significant. 117 will take the issue further. 


Argument 1 

What does something is a body. The good benefits (and gives the mind 
shape and cohesion). Therefore the good does something. Therefore the 
good is a body. 

This rests on the basic Stoic argument for corporealism (see Tertullian, 
DeAnima 5 = SVF 1.518; Aétius, Placita 4.20.2 = SVF 2.387; Nemesius, 
De Natura Hominis 67 (= SVF 2.773), 76-82 (— SVF 1.137, 518, 2.790); 
and LS 45 with commentary): if x causes something, x is a body, and if y 
is causally impacted by something, y is a body. But here Seneca invokes 
only the first half of this principle, since he takes it as given that the soul 
and mind are bodies. 

The minor premiss is asserted indirectly: 'the good' causes something, 
as indeed it must, if its essence is to 'benefit'. Further evidence that the 
good does something is the claim that it affects the quality of the soul (by 
shaping it and giving it cohesion). If the good is virtue, then virtue as a 
disposition will obviously shape and have an impact on the soul of which 
it is a disposition. The 'shaping' is both literal (soul being a substance 
with spatial extension and boundaries) and metaphorical (we still speak of 
intellectual and moral formation). Cohesion is, of course, a feature of all 
souls. But virtue endows rational souls with such a high degree of internal 
cohesion that at least those of sages remain intact after death (see the 
evidence collected at SVF 2.809-17 esp. D.L. 7.157). 

Seneca also claims that the good acts by stimulating the mind, but 
in what sense does Seneca intend this? If the word 'stimulate' (agitare) 
corresponds to the Greek term kinein, then we can recognize here another 
bit of conventional Stoic doctrine. For what stimulates an action is a 
representation of the desirable object (see Ecl. 2. 86. 17-19), and what is 
ultimately desirable is the good (hence it was treated by Epictetus as being 
the object of its own special kind oihorme; see Inwood 1985: 1 15-26 and 
Epict. Diss. 3.3.2-4 = LS 60F with Diss. 3.2.1-5 = LS 56C). Seneca's 


claim here, then, would be that the ability of the good to cause desire 
in a rational soul is evidence for its corporeal status. This might well be 
thought to be a dubious claim, since desires can be caused by intentional 
objects, some of which are non-existent and so non-corporeal. If the cause 
of my desire for education is the notion of myself as virtuous, which is 
as yet non-existent, then the intentional object which causes my desire 
is non-corporeal. The proximate cause of my desire would, of course, be 
a prior state of my own corporeal mind (a phantasia) but that does not 
'stimulate' action in the same way that the intentional content of such a 
phantasia does. These are more complicated matters than the claim that 
virtue (a good) benefits, shapes, or gives coherence to the mind, and it is 
not at all clear that Seneca has thought through what he means by claiming 
that the good stimulates the mind. The concern about causal efficacy could 
be raised against Stoicism generally, not just Seneca's version of it. 

Given the importance of the Piatonic and Aristotelian background for 
Seneca, it is important to recall that Stoic corporealism developed out of 
a serious polemical engagement with Plato's Sophist. See also Brunschwig 
1994: ch. 6 and 58.13-15 with commentary. Contrast with Piatonic theory 
is frequent in ancient allusions to Stoic corporealism (e.g.,S VF 1 .90, 1 .98). 

Argument 2 

The goods of the body are bodies. But the mind is also a body. So the 
goods of the mind are bodies. 

Seneca makes no effort here to defend the premiss that the mind is a 
body. That the soul is corporeal (being a form ofpneuma or fiery air) and 
that the mind is one part or facet of that corporeal soul is universally held 
Stoic doctrine. See the evidence collected atSVF 2.790-800 and at LS 53. 

That the goods of anything which is a body are themselves bodies is a 
premiss used in this argument and in the next. The reason for accepting 
such a proposition is suggested in argument 3: goods benefit that of which 
they are the good and so have causal impact and so must be bodies. 
However, if this is so then this consideration is no different from the 
argument based simply on the faet that goods produce benefit. 

In Stoicism, things which 'are' or exist are bodies and so the state 
or condition which perfects them (their good) is plausibly regarded as a 
body or at least as bodily. In a metaphysics which recognized non-bodily 
existences (such as Platonism) there would be no reason to hold that the 
perfection of such an entity is a body (although it might still be natural to 
agree that causal impact can only be carried out by bodies, which would 

LETTER 1 06 267 

mean that incorporeal entities would have to be free of causation and 
perfected in their own right rather than by the influence of something 
else). The real work of this argument is done by Stoicism's fundamental 
commitment to corporealism. 


Argument 3 

A human being is bodily. But the goods of a body are bodies. So the good 
of a human being is a body. 

A human is bodily, but Seneca refrains from the overtly reductive 
claim that a human just is a body. (In 121. 10 Seneca says that a human's 
constitution is the mind in a certain relationship to the body, that is, 
that it is the relationship between two bodies. In this sense a person is 
bodily without being reductively identical to a body. See 'Soul and Body 
in Stoicism' in Long 1996.) That the goods of something bodily must 
be bodies follows from Argument 1 above. That physical nourishment 
and health are served by corporeal things is the basis for an analogicai 
argument about benefit to the (equally material) soul. 


Argument 4 

Emotions cause changes in bodies. So emotions are bodies. If emotions 
are bodies, then so are 'ailments' and so are 'vices'. If vices are bodies, 
then so are their contraries (i.e., virtues which are 'goods'). 

The Stoic claim that virtues are bodies is elsewhere based on the faet 
that they are dispositions of the mind ('are the same in substance as the 
leading part of the soul' Ecl. 2.64. 19-21), which is as bodily as the rest 
of the soul (see the evidence collected at SVF 2.773-800). But it is here 
presented as the conclusion of an argument less obviously dependent on 
characteristically Stoic doctrines. 

This argument depends for its success on a progression from movements 
or events in the soul (the passions) to the dispositions which underlie them 
(the 'ailments'), to the vices which underlie the dispositions. Seneca's 
claim is that passions unquestionably produce visible changes in a body 
(blushing, wrinkled brows, eta). That passions, especially anger, have the 
power to change our bodily appearance is a familiar view and one unlikely 
to be rejected by the reader. See De Ira 1. 1.3-7, 3.13.2—3. Earlier Stoics 


(such as Chrysippus) also held that long-term passionate dispositions, 
cailed tendencies (euemptosiai) or 'diseases', underlay these events and 
explain our proneness to react passionately rather than rationally (see 
the evidence collected at SVF 3.421-30 and Kidd 1983). The vices of 
character are more deeply rooted and stable dispositions in the soul. 

The dispositions, both vices and tendencies, are causes of the passions; 
Seneca argues that if the passions are bodily so too are their causes and 
if vices are bodily so too are their coun terparts, the virtues. This is an 
appeal to a form of parity of reasoning (if vicious States are bodily, then 
so too are virtuous States) or rather to the plausible assumption that 
virtues and vices have the same status in the soul. This assumption of 
symmetry is Stoic doctrine, but although it is also independently plausible 
it is hardly a necessary intuition. A theory in which vicious actions are 
caused by defects of a corporeal disposition while virtuous actions result 
from the influence of something incorporeal (such as divine inspiration 
or grace) would be perfectly coherent. The assumption of metaphysical 
parity in explaining virtuous and vicious actions is a feature of Stoic 

Seneca could, indeed, have argued directly for the bodily nature of 
the virtues as being states of the material soul. But Argument 4 is less 
dependent on prior acceptance of that Stoic doctrine, since its foundation 
is a widely shared opinion (that passions cause bodily change) which 
non-Stoics would find it hard to deny. This observation combined with 
the principle that the cause of something bodily must itself be bodily yields 
the desired conclusion with less dependence on narrowly Stoic doctrine. 


Argument 5 

The virtues cause bodily changes; therefore they are themselves bodies. 
But the virtues (along with their effects) are goods. So goods are bodies. 

Argument 5 confirms argument 4 by pointing directly to physically 
observable changes in the body caused by virtues. On Stoic principles that 
argument directly establishes the corporeality of virtues. That virtue is 
a visible condition is Stoic doctrine (Plutarch, S to. Rep. i042ef = SVF 
3.85 = LS 60R). See also Cic. Fat. 10 and Tuse. 4.80 for the story about 
Socrates and Zopyrus, ultimately from a dialogue by Phaedo of Elis. 
Peripatetics also relied on this anecdote (see Alex. Aphr. De Fato 171). 
See too Graver 2002: 184. 

LETTER 1 06 269 

It should be pointed out that arguments 4 and 5 establish only that 
some goods are bodies. Nothing in these arguments shows that all goods 
are bodies (see 117). 

One might argue against Seneca here that the virtues, emotions, vices, 
etc. are not necessarily the causes of the physical changes observed, but 
that the physical changes and the psychological states/events might be 
produced by some common factor — with the result that the physical 
change would be the sign of a psychological change without having been 
caused by it. However, Seneca could still point out that virtue as a state of 
the soul is corporeal, and so the hypothetical common cause would have 
to be corporeal in order to be the cause of a change in any body. It would 
be more economical to concede that the pyschological state is the cause 
than to posit a common cause. 

106.8 A supporting consideration is offered for the arguments based 
on physical causation. Touch is said to be the necessary condition for 
bringing about physical change. But only bodies can touch. Hence if there 
is change, the cause must be a body. This insertion of a middle term 
(touch) into the relationship between cause and effect adds little to the 
force of the arguments. But it does enable Seneca to cite Lucretius (one 
of his favourite Latin authors and an Epicurean as well) in support of 
Stoic corporealism. It is, of course, true that Epicureans and Stoics share 
a commitment to corporealism which is not found among Platonists and 
Peripatetics and that rhetorical strength is gained from pointing this out. 
But it is typical of Seneca' s persuasive strategy to enlist the aid of literary 
authority and of a non-Stoic for his philosophical argument. 

106. 9-10 

Argument 6 

What can drive (a bodily entity) to action or restrain it from action must 
be a body. Virtues, vices, passions, and eupatheiai (that is, the virtuous 
counterparts of the passions, for which see Inwood 1985: 173-5) stimulate 
action or restrain us from action. Therefore all such things are bodies. 

As suggested above, the basic argument here does not rule out a 
competing causal theory, that bodily actions or changes and psychological 
states are caused by a common cause, so that the psychological state would 
then be no more than a sign of the bodily change and not its cause. 

Note that virtues and vices are thought of as causing action by com- 
manding — which must, therefore, be a corporeal event in the soul. On the 


early Stoic theory of action, assent is the cause, but assent is construable 
as a form of command to oneself to aet; at any rate, Aristotle is also 
familiar with the notion that an internal command is the cause of action 
(see Inwood 1985: 15-17, 46-8, 60-6). Such an assent is a movement in 
the corporeal mind, so Seneca's point about commanding works well. For 
Aristotle's thoughts on the need for a physical bridge between the soul 
and the body it moves, see M.A. chs. 8-10 esp. ch. 10 and Nussbaum 
1978 ad loc. and interpretive essay 3. 

106.11-12 Here Seneca distances himself from the extended demon- 
stration of argumentative subtlety which he has just provided. However, 
there is no indication that Seneca is not fully committed to the con- 
tent — the arguments do not meet with imagined objections, let alone 
criticisms that cannot be answered. 106.12 is clear: a small amount of 
scholarship is all that is needed for moral improvement and sometimes 
metaphysical theory goes beyond what is needed. Contra Cooper 2004: 
321, Seneca's dismissal of the issue is not complete. 

Seneca's objection to his own exposition is that this kind of argument 
contributes to making people educated (or learned) rather than good. 
This is education based on scholarship {litterae), and 106 shows that 
morally unproductive scholarship is not limited to such literary frivolities 
as the grammarians' concern about the Homeric question (88.37, e -g) 
or other matters (see 58.5, e.g.) but extends to philosophical argument 
about metaphysics. Seneca concludes the letter with a complaint not 
unheard of in our own day, that we lack self-control when it comes to 
scholarly technicalities in philosophy, that we pursue them for their own 
sake without considering their wider, moral impact. Lack of self-control 
is a general moral failing and Seneca is pointing out that it can infect 
philosophical endeavours as much as it does the rest of our lives. In 
faet, in 1 08. 1 Seneca promises to use that letter to show Lucilius how 
to regulate his cupiditas discendi so that it does not undermine its own 
proper objectives. The tribute to the pedagogy of Attalus which occupies 
108 delays the consideration of Lucilius' query to 109 — as a practical 
illustration of the requisite intellectual self-restraint. Here in 106 Lucilius' 
request is met more promptly. 

The 'we' invoked here means philosophers like himself and Lucilius at 
least — since Lucilius asked about the doctrine and Seneca has revealed 
that he is writing a book that will include many such questions. As 
suggested above, to some extent the lack of self-control he points to here 
consists in failing to keep such scholarly apparatus out of the letters, 

LETTER 1 06 271 

where it is inappropriate — it does not folio w that there is no place for it in 
philosophy. At the same time, there is no reason to conclude that Seneca 
would welcome any degree of 'pointless' technicality in treatises — though 
it is striking that the Natural Questions, dedicated to Lucilius as the work 
on moral philosophy will be, combines rebarbatively technical doctrine 
with practical application, displaying an attitude quite different from that 
of these letters. But even though Seneca is formally complaining only 
about his own and Lucilius' behaviour in their correspondence, the reader 
of Seneca's letters, then and now, is invited to identify with the complaint 
and thereby to draw a distinction between scholarly ('academic' perhaps) 
and practical philosophy and to question their relationship in one's own 

Cooper 2004 takes relatively little interest in the admittedly rather 
straightforward content of Seneca's arguments in this letter (106. 4-10). 
However, in interpreting the conclusion (106.11-12), he does not, I 
think, distinguish 106 sharply enough from 113 and 117, nor does he 
focus appropriately on its grouping with 108 and 109. For example, he 
says on p. 321 that this letter (like 113 and 117) deals with 'doctrines 
to know which . . . is of no profit: to concern oneself with such questions 
is to waste time on superfluities; these are matters for the schoolroom, 
not for living one's life.' But the most sweeping statements about the 
uselessness of such topics do not in faet apply to this letter; nor should 
they, since as we have seen 106 argues for a weaker and less technically 
controversial position than 117. In this letter (and in 108-9) tne contrast 
Seneca develops is not between the morally useful and utterly useless, but 
between what is excessively scholarly and what is genuinely philosophical. 
By becoming bogged down in too much scholarship (litteraé) due to a form 
of intellectual self-indulgence, such discussions undermine the genuine 
aim of philosophy — a not unreasonable complaint still heard among 
serious philosophers. See also 108.23: 'what was once philosophy has been 
turned into mere scholarship (philologia)\ 

For the purposes of understanding 106 the most important question 
concerns the kind of scholarly refinement which Seneca thinks is appro- 
priate to himself and Lucilius. I suggest that one key consideration in 
this regard is the influence of Aristo's conception of philosophy. He, 
with excellent Socratic credentials, took the view that philosophy proper 
consisted only of ethics and that logic and physics were superfluous (D.L. 
7.160 = SVF 1. 351). See 89.13 on this point. (Seneca's critical response 
to Aristo's substantive views in ethics (see 94.18 and my 'Rules and Rea- 
soning', ch. 4 of Inwood 2005) is compatible with his sharing of Aristo's 


sense for what is most important in philosophy.) In faet, Seneca's distaste 
for useless scholarship in philosophy and what he regards as pointless 
indulgence in logic and physics is played out throughout the letters, the 
more urgently as they become more technical. In 113 we shall see that 
Seneca's agreement with Aristo's views about the unity of virtue is an 
important part of the background to the argument. See also 36.3 and 115.8. 

Commentary on 113 

Thematic division 




Introduction. Are the virtues animals? 
Arguments for the affirmative. 
Arguments for the negative. 
Proper moral argument. 

For Cooper's view of this letter (Cooper 2004: 321-4), see on 85 and 
106 above. On my interpretation, Seneca's sympathy for the psychology 
and ethics of Aristo of Chios underlies his criticism (which is taken to 
satirically hyperbolic lengths) of the Chrysippean view. Crucial back- 
ground is found in Schofield 1984 and at LS 61 A-F and commentary. 
For a clear sense of the kind of dialectic to which Seneca is reacting here, 
see Schofield 1983. 

It becomes clear in the course of this letter (especially in the comic 
interlude) that Seneca is not writing technically about philosophy of mind 
here, but that he is nevertheless unambiguously in support of the central 
Stoic claims about the corporeal nature of the soul and the bodily nature 
of virtue, which are the doctrines at issue. Hence it is not clear to me why 
Cooper says (p. 323) that 'living on the basis of the orthodox views that 
he rejects would undoubtedly be better' than living on the basis of the 
alternate (in my view more Aristonian) psychology which Seneca evidently 
seems to prefer. Seneca's impatience with the excesses typical of early 
Hellenistic dialectic and his conviction (expressed at 106.12) that there 
can be an excess of scholarship in the practice of philosophy should not 
be confused with the more extreme claim that sound logicai and physical 
theories are not necessary. 

Before making any assessment of Seneca's handling of the issue debated 
in this letter, the claim that virtues are animals, we should ask how deeply 
committed to this thesis even a Chrysippean Stoic needs to be. The 
evidence for the 'orthodox' thesis that virtues are animals is surprisingly 

LETTER 113 273 

weak. Aside from 113, which names no authority for the doctrine, SVF 
cites only Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.64.18-65.6. This is not attributed to Chrysip- 
pus, or indeed to anyone in particular. (LS do not include the doctrine 
that virtues are animals in their treatment of Stoic ethics.) In the text from 
Stobaeus we read: 'They say that there are several virtues and that they 
are inseparable from each other. And that in substance they are identical 
with the leading part of the soul; accordingly, [they say] that every virtue 
is and is cailed a body; for the intellect and the soul are bodies. For they 
believe that the inborn pneuma in us is an animal, since it lives and has 
sense-perception; and especially so the leading part of it, which is called 
intellect. That is why every virtue too is an animal, since in substance it 
is the same as the intellect; accordingly, they say also that prudence acts 
prudently. For it is consistent for them to speak thus.' The last remark 
is the editorialization of the excerptor. For all we know, however, the 
thesis that the various virtues are severally animals may be nothing more 
than a post-Chrysippean conclusion from Chrysippus' theory about the 
unity-in-plurality of virtues and the quite correct view that virtue is an 
animal in a certain disposition. It is important to recall that in 1 13 Seneca's 
argument is directed primarily against the thesis that virtues are animak 
and not primarily against the thesis that virtue just is an animal in a certain 

There is one additional passage attributing to the Stoics the doctrine 
that virtues are animals, Plutarch's Comm. Not. ch. 45, io84bc. This text, 
quite reasonably not included as evidence by either LS or SVF, confirms 
what will be argued below, that the move from claiming that virtues are 
animals to the claim that emotions and other non-dispositional mental 
events are also animals should be regarded as a polemical extrapolation 
and not as a piece of Stoic theory. Plutarch begins the chapter with the 
Stoic thesis (attributed to no one by name) that the virtues and other 
mental entities are bodies; he then introduces the doctrine that virtues 
are animals; as a final step he extends this to the alleged view that other 
mental entities are also animals. That this is not reportage but extravagant 
polemic is indicated by his concluding remark: 'And let them not be vexed 
about being led to these things by the argument which advances little 
by little [i.e., a soritical argument] but remember that Chrysippus in the 
first book of the Physical Questions . . .' (trans. Cherniss) also employed a 
soritical argument. But Chrysippus' sorites does not deal with the doctrine 
of virtues as animals, but rather with the doctrine that seasons, times, etc. 
are bodies. This is reasonably clear evidence that the claim that virtues 


are animals was not Chrysippean and certainly the passage as a whole 
demonstrates that no Stoic would hold that mental events, actions, and 
occurrences were also animals. On might suspect, since the similarity to 
Seneca's satirical polemic is so great, that Plutarch was inspired by 113. 
More likely, however, is the possibility of a common polemical, no doubt 
Academic, source. However that may be, the faet remains that there is 
no evidence that Chrysippus himself held that virtues are animals. I am 
grateful to Scott Rubarth for discussion of this text. 

113. 1 The quaestio of the day is whether the virtues are animals. A 
quaestio is a potentially contentious philosophical topic for debate or 
discussion. Lucilius is presented as the instigator of this discussion and 
Seneca makes it clear that he is reluctant to engage in it and that his 
account will be a mere exposition of the Stoic view; his own dissent will be 
clearly indicated. Although his objection to the topic is philosophical, he 
adds a not uncharacteristic xenophobic touch (cf. Ben. 1.3.2- 1.4.8, esp. 
1. 4. 1), portraying the pointless subtlety as a Greek cultural form. The 
reference to the 'ancients' (antiqui) refers to early stages in the history 
of the school (third and second centuries bc), not necessarily to the very 
foundations of it with Zeno. 

1 13.2 'Mind' is the translation for animus, whereas anima is more nor- 
mally used for the entire soul including the sub-rational parts responsible 
for reproduction and nutrition, sense-perception, etc. The word for 'ani- 
maP (animal) is more likely derived from anima than animus, but in Latin 
the terms were used with an awareness of their connection (Cicero and 
Lucretius both do so). When considering the intellectual independence 
of Seneca with respect to this theme, it is worth noting that this linkage 
of 'mind' and 'soul' is more difficult in Greek; he is unlikely to have 
taken over this argument directly from a Greek source. The commonest 
word for animal in Greek, zoion, is not tied to any psychological terms, 
though empsuchon is derived transparently from psucke, the broadest and 
commonest term for soul — normally in the sense of a life-force which 
includes all the relevant powers of an animal. Words for 'mind' in Greek 
(hegemonikon, nous, dianoia, etc.) have no linguistic relationship to any 
word designating 'animal', though psuche can sometimes take on a nar- 
rower sense restricted to what we would call psychological properties and 
can (in the famous Socratic formulation 'care of the soul') refer even more 
narrowly to the moral personality. 

In this section, Seneca offers two Stoic arguments for the thesis. 

LETTER 113 275 

Argument 1 

What makes us an animal is an animal. (Tacit premiss.) 

The mind makes us an animal. (Support is drawn from etymology. 

So the mind is an animal. 

But virtue is the mind in a certain disposition. 

So virtue is an animal 

We should note how important the first premiss is. That the cause of 
x should be x itself to a higher degree is a principle of causation found 
widely in ancient thought. See, e.g., the safe explanations of the Phaedo 
100 ff Note too that the move from (3) and (4) to (5) requires that the faet 
that the mind is in a certain disposition should not make a difference to its 
classification as an animal (that is, as a kind of substance). 

Animus quodam modo se habens is very similar to the phrase at 121. 10 
where the 'constitution' is said to be the principale animi quodam modo 
se habens erga corpus, which seems to represent a Greek description, 
hegemonikon pos echonpros to soma. (I am extrapolating from the definition 
of virtue as hegemonikon pos echon at Sextus M. 11.23.) Seneca's report in 
113 of a Stoic view that virtue is the mind in a certain disposition (pos 
echon), that is, a disposition, the third of the so-called Stoic categories, and 
in 121 of the view that the constitution is a relative disposition, the fourth 
category, shows that his knowledge of serious metaphysical disputes in 
the early school (among the antiqui) is quite detailed. 

'disposition'. Compare Cicero's use of habitus (e.g., Inv. 2. 160, Tuse. 4.29, 
Fin. 4.32, 5.36). 

On the Stoic 'categories', see LS 27-9, Menn 1999 and Brunschwig 
2003: 227-32. Menn, followed by Brunschwig, argues that while the 
virtues are pros ti pos echonta (relative dispositions) for Aristo of Chios (see 
D.L. 7. 161 and Plu. Virt. Mor. 44oe~44id = LS 61B), for Chrysippus 
at an early stage they are poia (qualified) and at a later stage they are 
the hegemonikon pos echon (dispositions of the mind). Menn also argues 
(1999: 240-2) that one advantage of the later Chrysippean approach 
is that it enables the theory to retain the real distinctness of mental 
entities from one another without making them physically distinct (as the 
classification of virtues as poia might be thought to do, since they are 
physical features distinct from each other in a non-relational way) and 
so potentially independent objects. The disagreement between Cleanthes 
and Chrysippus over the status of 'walking' (113.23) is to be understood 
in this context, according to Menn. If this is so, then we have to conclude 


that since Seneca can associate doctrinal differences with Cleanthes and 
Chrysippus at 113.23 and is presenting Chrysippus' doctrine here, he is 
intentionally suppressing some particulars of the debate about whether 
virtues are animals. In the debate of 113 one important line of argument 
is that if virtues are animals they must therefore be separately countable 
entities (the risk attendant on the early Chrysippean position which holds 
that virtues arepoia); and in defence there is an attempt to show that this is 
not so, that the various virtues can be animals without the virtues thereby 
being separately countable entities (this would be a consequence of the 
later Chrysippean position, that they are dispositions). Seneca seems to 
have chosen to present the debate without attributing the different views 
to their authors. Why he would have done so is not clear. 

Argument 2 

1 . Virtue does something. 

2. All actions require impulse. 

3. Only animals have impulse. 

4. So if virtue has an impulse it must be an animal. 

5. So virtue is an animal. 

This second argument rests on an equivocation between doing something 
and acting. On the Stoic theory of action, action by an animal requires 
an impulse. But not every 'doing' is an action, and even when one grants 
(a) that doings by animals are all actions and (b) that virtue does something 
(since it benefits us) and so must be bodily (see 106, 117), one cannot 
conclude that such a doing is an action unless the virtue is in faet an 
animal. But to assume that as a tacit premiss is simply question-begging. 

1 13.3 Two objections to the thesis are stated and rebutted. 

Objection 1: If virtue is an animal, then a virtue possesses itself. The 
rebuttal asserts that there is nothing wrong with virtue accomplishing 
things through itself just as a rational agent accomplishes his actions 
through himself. But this is ignoratio elenchi. The objection is not that 
there is something Strange about an agent acting through his, her, or 
its own resources and nature, but that there is something Strange about 
having to say that a virtue has itself. For we do say 'Socrates has wisdom'. 
Yet if wisdom is an animal just in the sense that wisdom is Socrates' mind 
in a certain condition, then we will have to say that the animal Socrates 
(= Socrates' mind) has the animal 'wisdom' (Socrates' mind in a certain 

LETTER 113 277 

condition). And such a claim may well seem to be Strange — a violation of 
common conceptions and so a reason to doubt the thesis. 

Objection 2: If the virtues are animals, then so too are skilis (since virtues 
are skiils) and thoughts and conceptions (since skiils and virtues are forms 
of knowledge). Hence persons either are or have many animals in them. 
This is absurd. 

'he objects' renders inquit. The speaker of this intervention is not specified 
by Seneca. This introduction of such unnamed critical interlocutors is 
common in letters in which Seneca presents a two-sided debate on a 
philosophical issue. In the context of a letter this is stylistically awkward 
and seems to be an indication that when Seneca is thinking of philosophical 
dialogue he finds it difficult to remain within the formal boundaries of the 
epistolary genre. Sometimes an equally abrupt 'you say' (inquis), referring 
rather unrealistically to Lucilius as recipient of the letters, has the same 
effect (e.g., 87.7). At other times the interlocutors are explicitly introduced 
(e.g., Peripatetici quidam, at 85.3). 

II 3-3 _ 5 Rebuttal of objection 2. The mind's various dispositions can 
be animals without there being many animals. The explanation is that 
there is a distinction between predicational difference and ontological 
difference. (This is, of course, modern jargon, but it captures Seneca's 
intent. See also on 120. 1-3.) The criterion for ontological difference is that 
something should be separate and free-standing (the Latin terms bearing 
on this criterion are separatus, diductus, per se stare), while the criterion 
for predicational difference is much weaker. The example offered to make 
this reasonable (I am an animal and a man but still just one object) might, 
however, seem insufficiently apposite. In 113.5 the supporting argument 
addresses parts: being a part of something blocks free-standingness and 
so ontological difference, but it does not block predicational difference, 
according to which 'my mind is an animal' and 'I am an animal' are distinct 
predications and my mind is a part of me. 

This rebuttal of the objection would enable the Stoic to maintain 
that each virtue is an animal without conceding either of the absurd 
consequences (that the sage is many animals or that he contains many 
animals). It does, however, leave open the question of how we are to 
understand the unity of the virtues. Aristo maintained that there is only 
one virtue but that it is named differently according to the sphere within 
which it operates (hence a virtue can be a relative disposition); Chrysippus 


held that each virtue is a distinct feature of the mind, being a different 
body of morally pertinent knowledge (hence a virtue is a distinct mental 
disposition), but that all the virtues are inter-entailing in the sense that if 
one has one such virtue one has them all. The Aristonian conception of 
their unity and the Chrysippean understanding both allow for a distinction 
between ontological and predicational difference. 

113. 4 'individual substances'. 'Substance' here renders substantia. At 
58.15 I translate this term as 'reality'. Contra Caston 1999: 154, n. 19, 
we should not insist on the same sense for substantia in the two passages. 
The present passage employs the term in the plural and suggests that 
substantia might vary with the item which has it, whereas Caston correctly 
interprets the term at 58.15 as indicating simple existence, which would 
presumably be common to the various individual items envisaged here as 
varying according to their substantia. 

1 13.5 'distinctly its own' renders suum et proprium, which I take as a 
hendiadys. The key idea here is that what is other than something else 
should be independently itself, not linked in an essential way to that from 
which it is other. proprium is the Latin counterpart of idion; an idion or 
proprium of some thing or some kind is a trait or characteristic that it 
alone (either the one thing or all members of the kind) and nothing else 

1 13.6 Seneca opposes his school forthrightly and makes his own objec- 
tion to the Stoic thesis. The objection consists in the claim that if virtues 
are animals then many other psychological dispositions and events will 
also qualify as animals on the same basis. 

Objection 3a: If virtues are animals then so are vices. 

Objection 3b: If vices are animals then so too are passions, thoughts, 
and opinions. 

Seneca does not say just why this should be such an implausible claim 
that it can serve as a move in a reductio ad absurdum. One might suppose that 
if the distinction between ontological and predicational difference holds as 
a response to objection 2, then it ought to work for objection 3a as well. 
Objection 3b is that an indefmite number of transient dispositions will 
have the same claim to be animals that virtues and vices do. But nothing 
in the Stoic argument shows that if stable dispositions (like virtues and 

LETTER 113 279 

vices) are animals then transient dispositions are too. It is worth noting, 
though, that in 113. 3-5 the Stoic does not respond to this aspect of the 
hypothetical objection. The objector had said, after all, that thoughts and 
mental conceptions as well as skilis and virtues would be animals; but 
the Stoic theorist did not reply to it. So one might find it acceptable for 
Seneca to exploit the implicit concession. Nevertheless, if the rebuttal to 
objection 2 suffices for thoughts and conceptions, then it ought to work 
here as well. 

Seneca's rejection of the thesis is based on its absurdity and reinforced 
by a distinction between a person and what 'comes from' that person. 
That distinction is explained in 1 13.7. Perhaps the Stoic theorist can agree 
with Seneca's assertion in 113.6 that 'it is not the case that everything 
which comes from a man is a man', but the explanations in what follows 
are crucial. In his discussion, Cooper (2004: 323) lays great weight on the 
statement 'And this can in no way be acceptable', as though this were the 
sole grounds for rejection and not, as I rather think it is, a claim which 
Seneca goes on to justify with further argumentation. 

113. 7-8 Seneca presses harder on the theory he is criticizing and as he 
does so he reveals that he holds an Aristonian conception of the virtues 
and the soul. 

Chrysippus claimed that the soul has a variety of genuinely different 
virtues which are nevertheless mutually entailing. They are distinct pos 
echonta (dispositions) of a single excellent state of the material mind. By 
contrast Aristo took the view that virtue was radically unified and that 
the differences among justice, courage, etc. were merely situational, pros 
ti pos echonta in the language of Stoic categories. See Plutarch, On Moral 
Virtue 44.oe-44.1d = LS 61B. On Aristo's view of the soul and virtue, when 
we aet bravely our virtue is courage and when we aet justly it is justice. 
Hence virtue changes in accordance with where it is applied, but only 
in so far as it is labelled differently; there are no substantive differences 
among the virtues — the distinctions are nothing more than predicational. 
Ontologically there is no distinction: virtue is a complete unity. It would 
follow that if virtues are substantively different from each other they 
would have to be ontologically distinct. 

Seneca seems to be relying on this model of the soul when he suggests 
that if the various virtues are distinguishable animals then they would be 
ontologically different from each other and these animals might come and 
go in the soul with implausible frequency and instability. This kind of 
instability would be impossible ('they cannot cease to be virtues'), so we 


must assume that each animal stays around in the soul. But since every 
distinctly labelled virtue and every mental event is an animal, there will 
soon be an astonishing number of different animals in our minds. Our 
mental menagerie will be the accumulation of all the virtuous actions and 
thoughts we have ever had in the various spheres of our lives. 

This line of thought is so implausible that Seneca expects that his 
opponent would abandon the claim that the virtues are animals — though, 
of course, an astute opponent would challenge the Aristonian conception 
of virtue on which the argument relies. Seneca's argument concludes with 
a reassertion of the unacceptable plurality of the mind on the Stoic view. 
If animals cannot change their nature and if each virtue etc. is an animal, 
then there has to be one animal for every occurrent disposition we ever 
have. And that would be an absurd outcome. But note that it comes from 
combining the 'virtues are animals' thesis with an Aristonian view of how 
the mind is structured. A Chrysippean conception of virtues, under which 
they are stable and ontologically distinct dispositions of the mind, would 
commit the proponent of the thesis that virtues are animals to nothing 
worse than a finite and manageable number of animals in the mind and 
would leave open the defence of maintaining that each virtue is an animal 
but not a separate animal — though one would be obligated to develop a 
plausible view of the status of stable dispositions within a unitary mind. 

Hence the disagreement between Seneca and the earlier Stoics turns 
at least in part on the metaphysics of the mind they adopt. It is also 
clear from this section that Seneca's failure to distinguish stable and 
transient dispositions above is not a sign of muddle or incompetence but 
of disagreement. Cooper takes it that Seneca simply misunderstands the 
orthodox view (wilfully or not) by confounding transient and dispositional 
mental states. 

1 13.8 'Virtues cannot cease'. Either cease to exist or cease to be what 
they are. Whether the verb is intransitive or there is an ellipsis for desinunt 
animalia esse does not greatly affect the argument. 

'roam around'. The Latin is versantur (verso, OLD sense 11a). The Loeb 
translation has 'sojourn', which captures a nuance of the word that is 
appropriate to the idea that virtues are animals. The Bude has grouillant, 
'swarming' — perhaps thinking oisnienos areton (see above on 65.11). 

1 13.9 The Stoic attempts to rebut the objection that there is unacceptable 
pluralization of the mind on his thesis by arguing that there is a part-whole 

LETTER 113 281 

relationship between the mind and the virtues. Seneca rejects this on the 
grounds that the parts of even compound animals are not animals, so that 
the thesis must be modified. 

113. 10 is a reply to the argument in 113. 2. Seneca is right to point out 
that impulse, strictly speaking, is a feature of the mind and not of the 
virtue which is itself a disposition of the mind. We might be prepared, 
then, to say that our mind acts (for it has an impulse), though no doubt 
it is even more appropriate to follow the general example of Aristotle (De 
An. 4o8bi 1 - 15) and say that the person acts with or in virtue of the mind. 
The move from saying that the mind acts to saying that virtue acts can 
only be made if one maintains a complete identity of mind and virtue. 
In faet, at 113.2 the claim was made that the virtue is 'nothing but' the 
mind in a certain disposition — but the qualification added is sufficient to 
prevent transparent substitution of 'virtue' for 'mind' in all contexts. 

Both supplements to the text here seem virtually certain. The omissions 
are easily explained as scribal errors occasioned by the repeated words at 
the beginning of the inferential formulae. 

113.11-15 A series of arguments based on the conception of 'ani- 
maP — which Seneca thinks rules out any meaningful claim that virtues 
are animals. 

Since we have only one mind, each virtue is a disposition of that same 
mind. If each virtue is an animal, he argues, there will be untenable 

In 1 1 3. 1 1 Seneca asserts a principle of continuity of identity for 
animals: from creation until death to be an animal is to be the same 
animal. Presumably the idea here is that 'animal' invokes expectations 
that there is a stable identity. But if two distinct virtues, justice and 
courage, are dispositions in the same mind, then each (being an animal) 
must be persistent. And if that is so, then two animals will be associated 
with the same mind. But it is plausible to invoke a rule of 'one mind per 
animal' (113. 12) and this rule is violated if one mind has two animals in 
it (justice and courage), let alone if it has more. Seneca thinks (correctly, 
no doubt) that 'one mind per animal' is more generally accepted than 
the subtle Chrysippean doctrine which permits multiple dispositions in a 
single body. One way out of this attack for Seneca's opponent would be 
to concede that each animal is the same from creation to death but then to 
concede that the animal justice perishes when the animal courage comes 
to be. But if these virtue-animals are meant to be identical to the soul 


of which they are dispositions, then this move is blocked by the need to 
acknowledge that the soul persists as the same entity until it dies. 

If, however (113. 13-14), one invokes a 'one body per animaP rule then 
the same thing happens, since having justice and courage in the same 
body (that is, the mind, since the mind is a body) violates this rule if they 
are animals. Behind 113. 12- 14 is a widely agreed-upon understanding (a 
common conception, perhaps) of an animal as a combination of one body 
with one soul. 

There might seem to be a bit of sharp practice in play here. For Seneca 
considers treating the substrate for the virtues as both a mind and as a body 
and the 'one X per animal' rule needs to be taken in a different sense in 
these arguments than the sense in which it is understood when one agrees 
that each animal has one soul and one body. Yet for the Stoics whom he 
is criticizing the mind is both a mind and a body and the equivocation 
Seneca exploits is nothing worse than a dialectical manoeuvre designed to 
forestall an equally dubious move by an opponent. 

The larger point which emerges from this dialectic is that there is a 
difference between the way in which a Chrysippean and an Aristonian 
would respond to the thesis that virtues are animals. On the Chrysippean 
assumption of a simultaneous unity of genuinely distinct virtues, the 
thesis does entail that there will be multiple animals per body (which is 
supposed to be impossible). So the Stoic opponent cannot both have his 
Chrysippean theory of the metaphysics of mind with its claim that there 
is a unity of distinct real virtues and the animal-thesis simultaneously. 
Aristo could hold the thesis that virtues are animals more easily, since 
he does not hold the Chrysippean model of the unity of really distinct 
virtues. He maintains that there is a radical unity of virtue in which the 
named virtues are only situationally distinguished, so that virtue (as a 
single disposition) can be an animal — there would only be one virtue and 
so one animal per body. The sense in which Aristo holds that we even have 
more than one virtue is so weak that he could cheerfully abandon it, and 
so retain the thesis that virtues are animals, without violating the common 
conception of animal. This, apparently, is where Seneca's sympathies 
would lie. 

113. 11 'become something different .. . become a different animal'. The 
Latin verb is transire, which can either indicate a change or transition 
to being a new kind or a physical movement to a new location — it is 
originally a verb of motion. The first instance of the verb here establishes 
the sense as being a change of kind and that must be the sense throughout 

LETTER 113 283 

the section. However, in the second occurrence Seneca is exploiting the 
literal sense of spatial location ('retained in ... remain in'). 

113. 15 'obvious point ... outrage'. An anticipation of the abandonment 
of the theme at 113.26. See also 1 13.21. 

113. 15 The reply of 113. 9 restated: a part of an animal cannot be an 
animal. (This too is a view according to which our soul has and so is just 
one virtue.) 

113. 15-16 It is Stoic doctrine that the virtues are equal. Hence it is 
offered as an objection to the Stoic claim that virtues are animals that all 
animals, like all of the individual substances in the world, are unique and 
so not equal. 

This is not a powerful objection. For even if one concedes that all 
animals are unique (and not just all animals in the ordinary sense of the 
word), it does not follow that there cannot be animals which are equal 
in some relevant sense. The uniqueness of all things is a Stoic doctrine, 
connected to their epistemology (each object in the world being unique so 
that the Stoic criterion of truth could be reliable: see Sextus M. 7.241-52 
= SVF 2.65, Plutarch Comtn. Not. 1077c = SVF 2. 112, Cicero Acad. 2.85 
= SVF 2. 113, Acad. 2.54 = SVF 2. 114, 2.57, Sextus M 7.409-10 and 
generally LS 40) and cosmology (it was a contested question whether or 
not successive worlds should be thought of as unique and so different from 
each other: see the texts at LS 52). But such uniqueness requires only that 
'at least there is some difference' not that there be no point of equality. 
Hence Seneca seems to be playing on 'equal' and 'indistinguishable'. 
Further, the Stoic thesis of the equality of virtues does not entail that 
they are identical: all virtues are equal in the same sense that all mistakes 
are equal. It is equally the case that robbery is wrong and murder is 
wrong, but they are distinct and readily distinguishable crimes. So too 
it is equally the case that justice is a virtue and that self-control is a 
virtue. And, one might add, it is equally the case that horses are animals 
and cows are animals — they are equal qua animals; yet they are clearly 

113. 16 'demanded of himself. An expression of god's necessary good- 

113. 17 Two further counterarguments. 


1 . Virtues do not aet on their own as animals do, so virtues cannot be 
animals. See 113. 10. 

2. Rational animals are gods or men. Virtues are neither. But virtues 
are rational (and so they are not non-rational animals). So virtues 
cannot be either rational or non-rational animals. Therefore they 
are not animals. A possible rejoinder to this argument might be 
that 'rational' is used in a different sense of animals and of virtues. 
But the cost of that move would be high, as it would weaken 
the sense in which virtues could be said to be animals if not 
even an essential predicate like 'rational' can be asserted of them 

113. 18-19 This argument is parallel to that at 113. 2. On the conventional 
Stoic analysis of action (for which see Inwood 1985: ch. 3) impulse is 
required for all actions by animals and assent is required for rational action. 
(For the sequence of impulse and assent here, see Inwood 1985: 270, n. 29; 
282, n, 193; and 175-6; Rist 1989: 1999-2003 and Sorabji 2000: 66, 119 
nn.\ Graver 1999: 301). Animal action was addressed at 113. 2. Seneca here 
argues that assent does not occur in virtue, so that it cannot meet the 
requirement of being a rational animal. And if it is an animal and lacks 
assent, then it is not rational. But virtue (especially prudence, used as an 
example here) cannot be a non-rational animal; so it is not an animal at all. 
The argument that virtue cannot give assent depends on the proposition 
to which assent is given in the Stoic theory. One assents to a proposition of 
the form 'it is fitting that / do so-and-so' (walking is a standard example). 
That is, the assenter and the person for whom the action is fitting are 
the same. But even supposing that when using my practical wisdom I 
decide to walk, one could not say that wisdom assents, since wisdom 
would have to assent that it is fitting for wisdom to walk. But if / assent 
with my reason, then the assenter and the beneficiary are the same (as the 
theory requires). It is necessary in the Stoic analysis of action that the 
assenter be the same person as the agent (for otherwise the action could 
not follow necessarily on the assent — see Inwood 1985: 56-66, esp. 63 
on self-directed imperatives). In the example Seneca is considering, the 
necessary reflexiveness could only obtain between wisdom and the agent 
if the virtue were identical to the agent rather than a disposition of the 
agent's mind. Again, such a reductive identification of a virtue with the 
agent would in faet be easier on Aristo's theory than on Chrysippus'; for 
since Aristo holds that there is only one virtue, it could in principle be 
identical with the mind and so one could hold that the mind = the agent = 

LETTER 113 285 

a rational animal. But Chrysippus' commitment to more than one really 
distinct virtue would make this impossible. 

1 13.21 'tickling... amusing... silliness'. Another anticipation of the 
thematic break at 113.26. See 113. 15 above. 

1 13.20-2 Seneca here indulges in a comic reductio ad absurdum of the 
theory he is attacking. The Stoics are said to concede that every good is 
an animal because every good is a virtue (and every virtue is an animal). 
Seneca then expands this to include virtuous actions as goods (and not just 
virtues). Hence virtuous actions (saving your father etc.) are also animals. 
This leads to an insane multiplication of animals; see 113.3. 

There is a dubious looseness in this dialectical argument. In 106 Seneca 
defends the view that all goods are bodies but does not deny that some 
non-bodies are goods. In 117.3, though, the Stoics are presented as not 
holding that actions and events (even those which express the content of a 
virtue) are themselves good except in an indirect sense. But if something 
is not a body it is certainly not an animal. So the Stoics of 117 would not 
agree that a virtuous action is an animal, since they would not concede the 
key premiss in the argument of 113.20. Seneca presumably knows what 
he is doing here, so we may conclude that this is an appropriate bit of 
deliberate outrageousness designed to be the culmination of the argument 
which leads to the repudiation of this whole debate. 

1 13.20 The textual problems at the end of the section are deep-seated and 
probably incurable; the translation at that point is a mere approximation 
of the appropriate sense. 

1 13.21 -2 The reduction to absurdity here depends on the extension of 
the thesis from virtues to virtuous actions. See above. 

113.22 'round shape like the one god has'. The spherical shape of Stoic 
gods is attested by Arius Didymus fr. 39 = SVF 2.809, Sextus M. 9.71 
= SVF 2.812, and by a scholiast on Mad 23.65 = SVF 2.815. See also 
Graver forthcoming: ch. 1, n. 15. 

113.23 Using the same example (the action of walking) Seneca justifies 
his policy of independence within the school as being the example set 
by Chrysippus. The disagreement between them is, however, pertinent 
to the discussion in this letter. See Menn 1999: 241-2, who argues that 


Chrysippus is here applying his new category of the pos echon in order 
to avoid having to make 'walking' a distinct body within the person, a 
dedicated stream of pneuma identifiable as walking. Instead, Chrysippus 
identifies the walking with a definite but not independent disposition of 
psychic pneuma, a feature of the person rather than a part. In Inwood 
1985: 50 1 made less of this passage than now seems appropriate; see Long 
2002: 219, n. 10. 

1 13.24-5 The substantial disagreement is brought to focus and then 
resolved with a casual ease that suggests once more that Seneca has been 
deliberately exaggerating the dispute to make a point about the need to 
maintain an appropriate balance between detailed physical speculation and 
ethics. Despite Seneca's aggressive and sometimes irresponsible polemic, 
the spokesman for the Stoic thesis restates it in a form which both 
confirms its reliance on Chrysippean pos echonta ('The mind and the mind 
which is just and wise and brave are the same thing, being in a certain 
disposition with respect to the individual virtues') and permits there to be 
an intelligible sense in which virtues are animals but not many animals. 
This is the relatively sensible middle ground that Seneca argued against 

But now there is to be agreement that the mind is an animal and that 
paves the way for some sort of agreement that its dispositions might be 
considered animals too (though not ontologically distinct, just predica- 
tively distinct). Predicative distinctness is compatible with ontological 
uniqueness, and this is illustrated by the example of someone (Seneca, 
e.g.) who is both a poet and an orator and yet is just one person. Just as 
poetic skill and rhetorical skill are distinct dispositions in Seneca, so too 
justice and courage are distinct dispositions in the mind — so the mind 
can be one even while having two such different dispositions. Hence if it 
is conceded that the mind is an animal and one takes a similarly generous 
approach to predication, the problems with the thesis that virtue is an 
animal can be made to disappear. Seneca correctly points out that the 
absurdities are generated by the claim that actions are animals — but that 
was his own unwarranted extension of the Stoic claim anyway! On this 
new, more irenic approach, both Chrysippus' conception of the mind and 
Seneca's Aristonian conception of the mind remain viable. 

113.24 idem est animus et animus. The text is sound. The emendation by 
Long published at LS 61E: 'the same mind is both moderate and just . . . ' 
is not necessary. 

LETTER 113 287 

113.25 'I sing of arms and the man' is the first line of Vergil's Aeneid. 
'six feet' refers to the metre of epic poetry — each line of hexameter verse 
has six metrical feet, so if a line of poetry is an animal it must be six- 
footed — and hence not 'round' — a term which when applied to literature 
refers to a smooth and polished style. 

With 'I too concede' in 113.25 Seneca is finally making clear his personal 
view on the metaphysical dispute. 

1 13.26 Having demonstrated the silliness to which metaphysical dialectic 
can degenerate and made it tolerably clear that his excesses were deliberate, 
Seneca shifts his attention to a topic which is in his view appropriate to 
the occasion. We recall that Seneca presents himself as having developed 
the theme of virtues as animals only at Lucilius' request and against his 
better judgement. 

113.26 'tangled web'. This is reminiscent of Aristo, who dismissed 
'dialectical arguments' as being mere 'spider-webs, which are useless, 
though they seem to display some craftsmanlike quality' (D.L. 7. 161). 

1 13.27-8 A proper exhortation to courage. The important thing is not 
to know its metaphysical status but to know substantively what courage 
means in a human life. As the citation of Posidonius (= F105 E-K) makes 
clear, genuine courage depends on adopting a sound attitude towards 
what is in one's own control and what is not. It is only if one relies on 
one's own resources that one can be truly courageous. The things outside 
one's own control (fortune) can work in one's favour, but can also become 
the very obstacles against which one needs to have courage. Courage is a 
martial virtue, and Seneca here draws on Posidonius' reinterpretation of 
its martial character in the service of Stoic ethical theses. 

113.29-30 Alexander is an alleged paradigm of courage, but the insta- 
bility of his virtue was proven by his lack of self-control and consistency 
when adversity and his own moral failings came to afflict him. He is a 
frequent paradigm for lack of self-control and tyrannicai behaviour. For 
the murder of Clitus by Alexander, see 83.19, De Ira 3. 17, Tuse. 4.79 
and for Callisthenes see NQ_ 6.23; but the copious Alexander legends 
supply many examples of friends and comrades whose death could be 
laid at the feet of the great general, including Philotas and Parmenio. 
The reinterpretation of courage culminates in a parallel transvaluation of 
the idea of empire — a false version of which Alexander possessed. The 


greatest kingdom is self-mastery, a form of empire which equals that of 
the gods. The fate of Alexander's empire is a common contrast to the 
self-mastery of Diogenes the Cynic. 

For a similar theme, see 94.61-7, 90.34 (the most powerful man is he 
who has power over himself), and NQ 3 pref. 10. 

113. 31 'let him teach me'. Who is imagined as doing the teaching? The 
same person apostrophized in 113.27; there is no reason to suppose that 
Seneca has anyone particular in mind, not even Posidonius, who is invoked 
in 113.28. 

113. 31-2 Having dealt with courage, Seneca turns to another virtue, 
justice. In its mundane, political version, justice is practiced for the sake 
of glory, for its rewards in the social sphere. This is a theme that goes 
back to Plato's Republic and Gorgias. But in faet justice is selfless, is its 
own reward, and is just as valuable when it is accompanied by disgrace 
and public humiliation. 

113.27-32 Taken together, these sections make a cumulative and indi- 
rect case for the unity of virtues. We see here courage, self-control, 
justice, but not wisdom. The unity of the virtues is a theme which, 
as I have argued, plays a subtle role throughout the dialectical part of 
the letter. 

Commentary on 117 

The discussion in Cooper 2004 (esp. pp. 324-32) is of particular impor- 
tance for this letter. See above on 85, 87, 106, and 113. As is also the case 
with 106 and 113, it is clear that Seneca understands and endorses the 
central Stoic doctrines about the nature of virtue and its corporeal nature 
and agrees that these doctrines are necessary for the achievement of a 
successful life (Cooper 2004: 325-6). As elsewhere, Seneca is impatient 
with counter-intuitive refinements of Stoic theory which go beyond this 
level of technical refinement. 

Thematic division 

1 : The quaestio — Lucilius poses a problem which puts Seneca 
in a tight spot. Explicit statement of aims and outline. 
2-3: The school position on relation of wisdom and being wise. 
4-5: Objections from others to the Stoic doctrine. 

LETTER 117 289 

6: Seneca's objection based onpraesumptiones (preconceptions) 
and consensus omnium (universal agreement). 
7-17: Non-popular objections to the doctrine (Seneca's own). 
18-29: Detachment from technicality and consideration of what is 

really useful in philosophy. 
30-3: The pressures of time and genuinely important business. 

1 17. 1 Once again Lucilius is the initiator of the topic. Seneca is here 
more emphatic in his claim that he is discomfitted by having to state 
his own position. The 'minor questions' are designated by a demeaning 
diminutive {quaestiunculas) which stands in contrast to the 'huge' difficul- 
ties it occasions. In all innocence (dum nescis) Lucilius creates a dilemma 
for Seneca, who is torn between his sense of good faith and personal 
responsibility for his philosophical views and his 'good relations' with 
his fellow Stoics. These relations are characterized by gratia, a sense of 
reciprocity and obligation. Does Seneca feel that he owes something to 
his Stoic teachers for the beneficium of having shared Stoic doctrine with 
him and that his rejection of some aspects of that doctrine might seem 
ungrateful? In this very short introduction Seneca outlines a moral context 
for his engagement with a technical issue; it is worth observing that this 
is not an issue which Seneca says he was planning to include in his 'big 
book' on moral philosophy (see 106. 1-2). 

Seneca announces that he will first outline the school's position and 
then give his own view; but curiously he does not anticipate the attention 
he devotes to other people's objections (117. 4-6). 

1 17.2-3 Seneca States the school position on the relation of wisdom 
(a causally effective body) and being wise (an incorporeal attribute) 
which is metaphysically dependent on a body. The argument that good 
is a body is familiar from 106.4; here it is followed by the premiss 
that wisdom is a good. Note the emphasis on what the Stoic position 
requires them to hold (on pain of inconsistency); see also on 117.6 below 
('impeded by their initial commitment'). This argument runs from the 
observable faet that the good (and so wisdom) provides benefit to the 
metaphysical conclusion that it must be a body. The argument about 
being wise runs in the opposite direction: from its incorporeality and 
dependent status to its failure to confer benefit and failure to be good. 
Since the positive claim is not controversial for Seneca, the focus here 
must be on the negative claim, the denial that being wise is good and 


1 17.3 'Do we not say ... ' Seneca concedes that Stoics do not always 
insist on strict technical usage and have no objection to applying terms 
in derived senses provided that the focal sense of the term is clearly 
understood. Compare what Chrysippus said about the term 'good' (Plu. 
St. Rep. 1048a = LS 58H). It is important to bear in mind that Seneca 
mentions that they do permit us to call being wise a good by a kind of 
catachresis. It should be clear that Seneca is not ignorant of the distinction 
and that in what follows he is concerned with the strict usage rather 
than the looser discourse of what one can get away with saying. (See 
Cooper 2004: 327 and n. 21.) In effect Seneca is asking in this letter what 
genuine philosophical good is done by Stoic insistence on the strict usage; 
it is easy to see what use there is in keeping the strict and looser use 
of 'good' clear, but no one has so far shown that there is a comparable 
Utility in this other case of technical strictness. Until that is done it is 
understandable that Seneca might prefer a philosophical approach which 
does not alienate its audience to one which does. Indeed, he might invoke a 
Socratic precedent in his own favour. In the Euthydemus, a dialogue which 
shows Socrates grappling with genuinely sophistical opponents and so is 
arguably relevant to the issues Seneca is concerned with, Socrates at least 
twice (275a and 288d) moves from the noun philosophia to the verbal form 
philosophein without any hint that the part of speech makes a difference 
to the substance. Seneca might well think that the sapientia and sapere are 
similarly related. 

That Seneca is fully capable of keeping straight the difference between 
bodies and incorporeals and using the distinction effectively in ethics is 
demonstrated by his treatise De Beneficiis; see, e.g., Ben. 6.2 and 2.35 and 
my discussion in 'Politics and Paradox in Seneca's De Beneficiis,'' ch. 3 of 
Inwood 2005. Seneca's handling of at least this paradox demonstrates that 
when he thinks philosophical technicality matters for ethics he can apply 
it reasonably well. 

1 17.3 'of the same kind'. 'Kind' translates condicio, but 'in the same 
category' might be preferable. See 117.8 below where alterius sortis 
is rendered 'in different categories' and seems to indicate a similar 
distinction. In 65.3 condicio is translated 'state of affairs'; in 66.5 and 87.36 
it is translated 'kind'. In this letter, Seneca's claim is that 'being wise' is in 
a different place in the Stoic ontological classification — a different kind 
of 'kind' — than in 66.5 and 87.36. The usage in 65.3 is different again, 
but the term refers to a fundamental metaphysical faet about objects and 
so is closer to the usage here. A more general use of the term is found 

LETTER 117 29I 

in 76.13, 85.32, and 87.27 ('situation') and in many other passages where 
it refers to the general 'condition' that something may be in (especially 
the 'human condition', as we still call it). In 26.6 and 30.11 a legal sense 
is apparent: the 'terms' of a (metaphorical) contract or legal judgement 
by which one's situation is defined. All of these connotations are in the 
background here. 

'attribute' renders accidens. Here the term indicates the ontological 
dependency on body which characterizes all incorporeals. This depen- 
dency should be distinguished from the status of a material disposition or 
quality of a body (such as its colour, its virtue, or its weight); such 'features' 
of bodies (properly, bodies so qualified or disposed) are themselves bodily 
and can have causal impact. 

1 17.4-5 Before giving his own view, Seneca adds two criticisms of the 
school position made by others. His handling of these will be an indication 
of his attitude to the school's theory. 

• First criticism: it follows that living happily is not good (though the 
happy life is). 

• Second criticism: this drives the school to neologism (being wise 
is choiceworthy, wisdom is worth choosing). The neologism adduced 
here is a translation of the metaphysical distinction between the haireton 
and the haireteon. At Ecl. 2.78.7-12 (— SVF 3.89) the doxography of 
Stobaeus says: 

They say that what is worth choosing differs from the choiceworthy. For every 
good is worth choosing, but every advantage is choiceworthy, and this is understood 
as having the good. That is why we choose what is choiceworthy, for example 
being wise — which is understood as having wisdom. But we do not choose what 
is worth choosing; rather, if anything, we choose to have it. 

Similar distinctions are applied to other terms by the Stoics (see e.g., Ecl. 
2.78. 13-17 = SVF 3.89, 2.97. 15-98. 13 = SVF 3.90-1). In all cases it 
is clear that the two terms track each other in their extensions and in 
their practical implications. The haireteon is always a matter of having or 
exercising the haireton, etc. and in no case can a wedge be driven between 
the two. The motivation for making this distinction, to which Seneca 
objects so vigorously, is suggested at Ecl. 2.97.20-98.6 (= LS 33J = SVF 
3.91): the choiceworthy and its congeners are: 


predicates corresponding to the good things. For we choose what is choiceworthy 
and want what is wantworthy and strive for what is striveworthy. For acts of 
choice and striving and wish are directed at predicates, just as impulses are. But 
we choose and wish, and similarly strive, to have good things, which is why good 
things are worth choosing and wishing for and striving for. For we choose to have 
prudence and temperance but not (by Zeus!) being prudent and being temperate, 
since these are incorporeals and predicates. 

When this is compared with the text at Ecl. 2.88.1-7 (= LS 33I = 
SVF 3. 1 71), it becomes clear that the motivation for this distinction lies 
in the technical Stoic analysis of human action — something Seneca also 
engaged with in 113. For further discussion see Inwood 1985: ch. 3, esp. 
55-66, from which two points relevant to Seneca's letter emerge. First, 
the technical distinctions are intimately connected to quite general Stoic 
concerns about the relationship between bodily and incorporeal entities, 
and in particular (1) the relationship between phantasiai, which are physical 
alterations of the soul, and the propositional entities which make them 
meaningful for rational agents; and (2) the relationship between causes 
and predicates. Second, just as phantasiai and propositions can both be 
treated as objects of assent without it making any practical difference 
to the understanding of rational animals, so too with the distinction 
between what is worth choosing and what is choiceworthy: a distinction 
vital in one area of philosophy (physics or metaphysics) appears to be 
a functionless appendage in another (ethics). The Stoic commitment 
to a fully systematic integration of all three parts of philosophy thus 
burdens their ethics with a set of distinctions that may do very little 
work within ethics but that are only dispensable at the cost of weakening 
their commitment to systematic integration. Seneca's impatience with 
these apparently functionless distinctions follows naturally enough from 
his broadly Aristonian (and so Socratic) approach to philosophy, which 
makes physics (with the exception perhaps of cosmology) marginal to the 
principal goal of philosophy. With this general approach to philosophy, 
Seneca has little reason to pay a high price in credibility with non-specialists 
in order to retain systematic integration. 

'syllable'. expetibilis is the novel word employed to render the Greek 
haireteon, whereas expetendum is the established term used for haireton. 
If it is a coinage it is a relatively easy one for a Roman to accept. The 
term is also used by Tacitus Ann. 16.21 and by Boethius Cons. 2.6. The 
change involved in coining the new term is not just the addition of a single 
syllable, but Seneca often uses 'syllable' symbolically (see on 58.7). 

LETTER 117 293 

'is an adjunct' renders accedit, but perhaps we should read accidit, in 
which case the translation would be 'is an attribute of '. 

1 17.6 'formula'. This is not a definition but the way of framing the 
issue; a term drawn from legal practice. Cf Off. 3. 19-21 and 95.52, Ben. 

'preconception'. Seneca turns to his own views and claims that attention 
to the consensus omnium would have kept the school out of this awkward 
situation it finds itself in. (Wildberger 2006 vol 1: 27-8 rightly notes 
that the term praesumptio is Seneca's very literal translation of pro lepsis 
(prae — pro and sumptio — lepsis); she compares this passage to Cleanthes' 
theological views as reported by Cicero in N.D. 2.) Seneca emphasizes 
that this criterion is one which the Stoics themselves accept in important 
areas of their physics and theology (the eternity of souls — open to debate, 
at least, in the school — and the existence of the gods). On the existence 
of gods see Cicero N.D. 2. The value of the consensus omnium represents a 
serious methodological commitment, so Seneca's challenge here to them is 
quite reasonable. (See also Scott 1995: 179, 183-4, 201-10.) His position 
is no doubt affected to some extent by the model of Cicero, who frequently 
emphasized the importance of providing arguments which stayed close 
enough to 'common sense' to be effective. 

'implanted' See Tuse. 1.30, AM). 2. 5. 

'initial commitment'. The reasonableness of Seneca's challenge to the 
Stoics raises the question of why they did stake so much on a fine 
technical distinction. See above for my suggestion, that it is the 'initial 
commitment' of the school to maintain a full integration of ethics with 
physics and metaphysics that leads to conflicts with praesumptiones which 
in other areas the Stoics take seriously. See also Cooper 2004: 327-8 and 
n. 22. I disagree with the view that Seneca holds that 'common opinion 
must be true'. An argumentum is not always a proof, but is usually a 
consideration in favour of a position. Seneca's point (as the first sentence 
of 1 17.7 shows) is not that consensus omnium guarantees the truth of a view, 
but merely that the Stoics did not give it enough weight in comparison 
with their 'initial commitment'. 

At Acad. 2.8 Cicero contrasts his own independence of judgement 
with the prior constraint that dogmatic philosophers face: ceteri primum 
ante tenentur adstricti quam quid esset optimum iudicare potuerunt. Although 


Cicero is contrasting the freedom of an Academic with the situation of a 
dogmatist, his criticism of the dogmatists is quite similar to the complaint 
Seneca makes about those in his own school who are unduly concerned 
with orthodoxy owing to a mistaken conception of school loyalty. 

For publica persuasio compare Cicero's aim to argue by means of a 
rhetorical mode of dialectical disputation at Fin. 2.17 (and compare 
Inwood 1990: 143-64). 

1 17.7 Seneca repudiates reliance on the publica persuasio of 117.6. He 
puts less weight on the argument than Cooper suggests, except to show 
that the school is inconsistent in its use of criteria for conviction and need 
not be burdened with the difficult position it finds itself in. Nor is it at 
all clear, as Cooper claims (2004: 328, n. 23), that nostris armis means that 
Seneca will 'draw on accepted Stoic principles'. The phrase is vague, but 
the contrast with appeal to the people suggests that it refers to Seneca's 
reliance on arguments of his own devising — much as a gladiator would 
win by effective use of his own weapons and skill and not save his life by 
appeal to the crowd. His own arguments are indeed presented in terms of 
the school's own metaphysical tools; Seneca approaches the issue on the 
school's own grounds by challenging the implications of something's being 
an 'attribute'. But that does not mean that his arguments are meant to take 
their force from their agreement with Stoic principles. They are, in faet, 
dialectical arguments rather like those of (e.g.) 85 and 87 — there is ample 
room for Seneca to argue on broadly Stoic principles but independently of 
at least some orthodox Stoics. It is worthwhile to recall again (as in 113) 
that not every Stoic would accept all the positions we have come to regard 
as canonical. 

That said, it is clear that Seneca does not have a proper grasp of 
the relationship between a lekton and its underlying body, confusing the 
incorporeal with the attribute of a body (and the attribute really is bodily, 
so if Seneca had the distinction right this argument would be an excellent 
rebuttal of the Stoic view). Cooper (2004: 328-9) is right that Seneca's 
arguments here are not orthodox and show that he lacks a full grasp of all 
relevant aspects of the Stoic theory. 

'touch'. See 106.8. 

'touches . . . acts'. There are two uncertainties in the mss here. First, some 
mss repeat sine tactu in place of sine actu. The Loeb edition, therefore, 
concludes that 'Nothing can be an attribute without an action, and what 

LETTER 117 295 

acts is a body' is a mistaken scribal repetition of the previous sentence. 
Second, assuming that this is not the case and that two distinct inferences 
are being offered, many mss repeat corpus in both arguments, yielding the 
translation 'what touches a body is a body' and 'what acts on a body is a 
body'. The second uncertainty does not affect the sense significantly. The 
first does, for it introduces a second argument. The argument based on the 
claim that it takes a body to aet is familiar from 106.3 an d II 3- 2 ^ though 
the phrasing is different. On balance the text of Reynolds seems right. 

1 17.7 Seneca's first argument has a dilemmatic structure: an attribute 
of something is either inside it or outside it. If inside, it is an internal 
attribute and so must be in contact with the whole of which it is a part. But 
contact requires corporeality so the attribute is bodily too. Or it is outside, 
in which case it must once have been inside, so it had to withdraw. In 
that case it can move and so is bodily. Arguments about attributes which 
might approach or withdraw from an object originate in one of Seneca's 
favourite Piatonic dialogues, the Phaedo (see 103 ff). 

1 17.8-9 Here Seneca asserts the priority of moral categorization over 
metaphysical. The very faet that the body and its corresponding attribute 
are necessarily linked makes it unnecessary to emphasize metaphysical 
distinctions (which have no consequences in terms of what they apply to 
or the choices one makes on the basis of them) rather than moral groupings 
(which do). He explicitly concedes that metaphysical distinctions are 
genuine (so he does not deny the soundness of the Stoic theory). He 
merely claims that since metaphysical distinctness does not determine 
moral categories it is useless to invoke that form of distinctness in ethics. 
And indeed that form of distinctness is not determinative of choice or 
action. Or so, at least, an Aristonian Stoic could argue. The motivation 
for retaining the distinction is clearly not ethical; so within ethics its 
appropriateness is precariously determined by one's higher-level views 
about how the parts of philosophy fit together. For discussion of how the 
parts of philosophical discourse are related to each other, see LS 26A-D 
and commentary, Brunschwig 1991 and Ierodiakonou 1993. Seneca's own 
exploration of the issue is in 89; his preference for avoiding excessive 
analysis and too many subdivisions is a guiding principle (89.3, 89.17). 

117. 9 'Since everything is either good or bad or indifferent ... '. In the 
doxography of Stoic ethics preserved in Stobaeus, this three-way classi- 
fication is the starting point (Ecl. 2.57). But the class which is divided 


exhaustively by it is bodies ('whatever participates in substance . . . things 
which are''). This classification was not meant to include incorporeals, 
so Seneca's argument here seems to be based on a metaphysical misun- 
derstanding. But it may not be a mere misunderstanding; it may be a 
substantial disagreement. For this argument would be sound if the 'things 
which are', i.e., 'whatever participates in substance' were the highest 
genus in one's ontology. Manifestly it is not for mainstream Stoics. But 
in 58.12-13 Seneca has aligned himself with the view that 'what is' is the 
highest genus — and if that were one's starting point then this argument 
from elimination would have real force. In 58.14 Seneca maintains that 
'what is' includes under it both incorporeals (like 'being wise') and bodies 
(like wisdom). So if Seneca combines the canonical Stoic tripartition 
(which holds that all things which are can be classed as good, bad or indif- 
ferent) with his own metaphysical claims, he can legitimately ask which 
of those three headings 'being wise' falls under. If this is what he is doing 
here, it remains the case that his argument is ineffective against the main- 
stream Stoics, but it ceases to be a misunderstanding and can be diagnosed 
instead as a conscious and quite interesting argumentative tactic. 

1 17. 10 Seneca holds here that 'being an attribute' must be a causal rela- 
tionship. If it is, then on Stoic principles both relata must be bodies. This 
text, then, shows that Seneca really does misunderstand the relationship 
oilekta to their bodies, confusing it with that of qualities. For the standard 
Stoic view on the metaphysical status of causes, see S. E. M. 9. 211 = LS 
55B and more generally LS 55A-G. 

117.11-12 The history of the metaphysically based categorization. The 
Peripatetics are introduced as a foil for the erroneous position of the Stoics. 
(Contrast the tendency to find the Peripatetics in the wrong on substantial 
matters of value theory in 85, 87). The rigorous metaphysically based 
classification is a relic of the 'early dialecticians' inherited by Stoics (and 
so, Seneca may be suggesting, not intrinsically Stoic). We might well ask 
(with Seneca) why, even allowing the reality of the metaphysical distinction 
(challenged in 117. 10), the moral categorization must line up with it? 

The case of the field and possessing the field illustrates that there can be 
a difference of this type which has no interesting moral consequences. As a 
field and its possessor are different, so too are wisdom and the wise person 
(who possesses wisdom). The wise person and wisdom (which Seneca 
properly characterizes as 'a mind made complete, that is, brought to its 
highest and best condition' and as the 'art of life' — cf. 95.7 and comment 

LETTER 117 297 

on 117. 16 below) are both bodily and so are analogous to the field and 
its possessor. But 'being wise' is a predicate (as 'having the field' would 
be) and so of a different order. The question is whether the difference 
between the predicate and the body matters. 

Being wise is here said to be a 'feature of such a mind (contingit) rather 
than an attribute (accidens) of it. It is not clear what difference is supposed 
to be captured by this terminological distinction. 

117. 13 'express the bodies', (enuntiativi corporum). This is a fairly clear 
statement of the relationship between a body and the lekton which attends 
upon it (see LS 33 esp. C, D = M 8.70, D.L. 7.49; zlso Acad. 2.21). The 
claim is made that 'it makes an enormous difference whether you mention 
the person or talk about the person'. But Seneca's concern in 117. 14-15 is 
to ask, what kind of difference does it make? Why should every significant 
distinction one can make drive moral categorizations? This challenge is 
designed to put the burden of proof on mainstream Stoics to show that 
there is a signficant difference. 

'abstracted' translates seductum. 'Separate' in LS and distinct in the Bude 
seem too weak. The Loeb's 'sundered' is obscure but more robust. I 
take it, though, that Seneca is reflecting the Stoic doctrine that the lekton 
expresses the content which is conveyed to a rational mind through a 
physical object (the phantasia). Somehow we 'get' the meaning out of the 
experience — automatically and unconsciously, but nevertheless as some 
kind of abstractive process. 

effatum, enuntiatum, dictum. Three attempts to render the Greek lekton 
into Latin. Compare Cicero at Acad. 2.95: quidquid enuntietur ... quod est 
effatum. Varro (cited by Gellius at Nodes Atticae 16.8) apparently used the 
terms pro lo quium and profatum; at 16.8.8 Gellius also tells us that Cicero 
used the term pronuntiatum (Tuse. 1.14.6). Augustine in De Dialectica 5 
used the term dicibile (for which see Long 2005: 52-3). Boethius seems 
to have used enuntiatio (SVF 2.201, in Arist. de Interpret., 429). dictum, 
mentioned here by Seneca, is an obvious translation, but it is not clear 
who proposed it. Seneca's point is that the metaphysical distinction is 
real and significant (so that there is no question of him not knowing it). 
His point in 117. 14-15 is just that it won't make a relevant difference in 
ethics. Support for this comes from challenging the applicability of the 
analogy between wisdom and a field. 

117. 14-15 Seneca grants for the sake of argument the reality of the 
Stoic distinction between body and predicate, though he formally reserves 

298 commentary 

judgement. The argument here is complex and comes in two parts. The 
first part admits of two interpretations. There are three things at play 
in the analogy. The field (Fi), its possessor (F2) (both bodies) and the 
predicate 'to possess a field' (F3); wisdom (Wi), its possessor (W2) (both 
bodies) and the predicate 'being wise' (W3). 

Seneca says first that Fi is different from F3 because Fi and F2 are of 
a different nature, but that Wi and W2 are of the same nature. From the 
shared nature of Wi and W2 we are to conclude that Wi is not necessarily 
different from W3. 

What sense can we make of this? Cooper (2004: 328-30) gives a hesitant 
analysis, but his criticism of the vulnerability of Seneca's metaphysical 
position is to the point (330-1). In the following paragraphs I offer a 
tentative alternative analysis of this very difficult passage. 

Although Fi and F2 are both bodies, they are physically distinct bodies 
independent of each other. Wi, though it is a body, is a component or 
disposition of W2; they are both bodies but not independent of each other. 
(See 106 and 113.) If this is what matters for the distinctions involving F3 
and W3, the principle underlying it seems to be at least that the predicate 
'possessing X' needs to be håndled differently where X is independent 
of the possessor. This seems reasonable. The possession of wisdom by 
a wise person is internal and reflexive in a way that the possession of 
a field by a landowner is not. The sage's possession of wisdom is not 
contingent as the landowner's possession of the field manifestly is. (Cato 
can lose his fieids but not his wisdom.) Hence there are significant facts 
about the field situation that warrant recognition in verbally expressed 
claims of difference and it makes sense to claim that a field and having it 
are different — since one can lose it so easily. But it does not in the same 
way make sense to claim that wisdom and having it are different — even 
though it may be true in some technical sense — if only because (according 
to Stoic theory) one cannot readily lose one's wisdom. 

If this is the correct interpretation, then the phrase 'of the same /different 
nature' (which is expressed by two different Latin constructions, in + 
ablative and the genitive of characteristic) uses natura in a particularly 
concrete way. Another consequence of this interpretation is that the 
apparently distinct argument of 117. 15 is fully anticipated in 117. 14. 

It may, then, be preferable to in terpret 'of the same nature' differently: 
'of the same nature' may refer to the moral categorization of the possessor 
and the possessed (Fi and F2, Wi and W2). If the faet that the wise person 
and wisdom are both good is what matters by making it pointless to claim 
that 'being wise' is different, then we still get good sense from 117. 14, 

LETTER 117 299 

and 1 17. 15 can be interpreted as introducing a distinct and supplementary 
point, that an external object can be lost while wisdom cannot. For a Stoic, 
that would in faet be a consequence of the special standing of the internal 
object, one's state of character. 

117. 15 provides the material for another relevant distinction between 
the field and wisdom. Possession of the former is legal (iure), possession 
of the other is natural (natura). (This is a version of the Greek contrast 
of notnos and phusis.) This reinforces the point about the instability of 
the one and the irreversibility of the other. 117. 15 concludes with a clear 
assertion of the foundation for the 'shared goodness' interpretation, that 
since wisdom and the wise person are both good they are relevantly similar 
and there is nothing to prevent us (i.e., it is reasonable to do so) from 
claiming that 'being wise' is good in just the same way. 

117. 16 'not worth accepting if it is not exercised'. Compare 6.4. 

'wisdom is the condition of a mind brought to completion'. Virtues are 
dispositions of the mind (or the mind itself in a certain disposition, as at 
1 17. 12: 'wisdom is a mind made complete, that is, brought to its highest 
and best condition'). See I. Hadot 1969: 105 and 66.6, 113 with comments. 

117. 16-17 then follows up on the claim that the moral quality of wisdom 
and the wise person makes it pointless (or worse) to exclude 'being wise' 
from the designation 'good'. This argument for the goodness of 'being 
wise' is based on a form of teleological reasoning, as follows. 

The purpose of being a wise person is to 'be wise'. That is, wisdom as a 
state of the soul has a telos expressed as the characteristic activity, 'being 
wise'. Without such an activity, wisdom would not be worth having (even 
a Stoic would not want wisdom if it had to be completely unused). The 
most valuable thing about any teleologically defined state is its goal, for 
without it the state is superfluous. (Analogies are the eyes, which would be 
pointless if they could not see, and eloquence, which would be pointless 
if one never spoke in public.) This resembles consequentialist reasoning, 
and the analogy with torture reinforces this appearance: it wouldn't be 
bad 'if you eliminated the consequences'. But if that is what Seneca has 
in mind it is a muddle, for the goal of an activity does not give it value in 
the way that consequences do. 

Yet there is clearly some confusion or complexity in this argument, 
an understanding of which will affect our sense of its cogency. For the 


relationship between 'being wise' and wisdom is not strictly analogous 
to that between seeing and the eyes or between speaking and eloquence. 
It is possible to have eyes but not see; one can be eloquent but legally 
barred from public speaking. In those cases the capacity is 'pointless' and 
Seneca is right to say that the use of the capacity is the source of the 
value of the capacity itself. In these cases it is perfectly possible to have 
the capacity and to lack the activity. But wisdom does not stand in this 
relationship to being wise, since one cannot, on the Stoic theory, have 
wisdom without being wise. 'Being wise' (the use of wisdom) is not some 
distinguishable activity carried out in virtue of the mental disposition; it is 
the expression of just having that disposition. Someone who has wisdom 
can be completely inactive on any overt and physical plane and still 'be 
wise' and so 'use wisdom' — but it is in a different sense of 'use' than 
what we have in mind when we use our eyes to see or use our eloquence 
to speak. 

Two kinds of argument are being blended, rhetorically and perhaps 
uncritically. In one, 'being wise' is so tightly connected to wisdom that 
it is inconceivable that one have wisdom without being wise. In this 
case it would seem silly to deny that being wise is good; for in faet 
they are always found together. In the other, 'being wise' is considered 
as a distinguishable pattern of activity made possible by wisdom and 
so giving wisdom its value. The latter argument is operative when the 
Stoics are made to agree that they would not choose wisdom if they 
could not use it by being wise. But for a Stoic that is a conceptual 
impossibility, since inert wisdom is inconceivable in a way that unseeing 
eyes are not. To see the difference this observation makes, consider what 
a Stoic might say if it were possible to have wisdom but not use it. 
What would that mean? If the use of wisdom were some overt pattern 
of activity which might be absent even when one had a wise state of 
soul, as would be the case if the use of wisdom had to be expressed 
in practical reasoning as a legislator, citizen, etc. or as a contemplative 
reasoner — for many people are barred from such activities by their 
external circumstances — if the use of wisdom were that sort of thing then 
it could be absent even if one had the disposition in one's soul. But if that 
were so, why would a Stoic reject wisdom that is doomed to be unused? 
Would one not want to have the intellectual and emotional resources to be 
happy even amidst such deprivation and constraint? Of course one would. 
Seneca can only portray the Stoic as saying that he or she would reject 
wisdom if unused because such a prospect is in faet inconceivable. To 
imagine not using wisdom is to imagine not having it. Hence the analogy 

LETTER 117 301 

with true teleological relationships between activities and dispositions is 

Yet the argument has some persuasive force despite this flaw, just 
because the relationship between wisdom and being wise is analytic and 
Seneca has already argued that it is pointless to deny the predicate 'good' 
to being wise on the merely metaphysical grounds that it is the wrong sort 
of entity (being a predicate). This prior argument is part of the appeal; 
the false analogy (which is appealing until challenged in the dialectical 
exchange) is another part. But an even greater part of the appeal may 
also be the echoes of the Socratic 'use' argument. Since virtue (of which 
wisdom is one instance) is the one thing that cannot be used badly, it is 
attractive to cast the argument in terms of 'use', which has a venerable and 
authoritatively Socratic ring to it. 

Seneca is making a point about the absence of extensional and 
behavioural difference in contrast to the (admitted) faet of metaphys- 
ical difference. This is the appropriate claim to concentrate on. The 
Stoicism in play here is different from Chrysippus' and perhaps not as 
carefully supported by argument (though we cannot compare them on 
this point since we do not have Chrysippus' argument, only the sum- 
mary statement of his position). But it is not markedly inferior from the 
point of view of moral choice nor is it clear that the distinctions which 
might be needed for physics are fundamental to ethics. An Aristoni- 
an Stoic — a more Socratic Stoic — could hold up his head in his own 
philosophical circles while making these claims, despite the preference 
for Chrysippean Stoicism which we tend to have. Cooper says correct- 
ly that moral improvement requires a deep intellectual commitment to 
its rational foundations; on p. 331 he rightly observes that one reason 
for having a sound theory worked out is to ensure its stability over 
time. But he does not show that the limits on how much metaphysi- 
cal and dialectical detail one needs lie precisely where Chrysippus or 
Zeno put them. Like Aristo, Seneca challenges that assumption. (And 
not even Aristotle thinks that there are no limits — he more than any 
ancient philosopher concedes that there are limits on how much detail 
is relevant to ethics; see EN 1.13, ii02a26~7, b25, on the structure of 
the soul.) 

117. 18-29 For the self-correction, cf. 108.35. This section represents 
Seneca's detachment from the preceding technicality and his more detailed 
consideration of what is really useful in philosophy. To motivate the 
detachment from the technical discussion (to which he has devoted 


considerable space), he generalizes in 117. 18 about the common moral 
judgements made of things which are the same in kind but different 
only in their metaphysical status. The examples heat, cold, and life are 
reminiscent of the Phaedo, where the trio of objects discussed from the 
point of view of Socrates' causal theory is hot, cold, and soul (as principle 
of life). These examples confirm that the main point Seneca wants to make 
in 117.114-15 concerns de facto separability. 

1 17. 19 'Even if ... ' The concessive wording suggests that the principal 
use of wisdom should be practical and relevant to the quality of one's 
life. A 'digression' or diversion from such purely serious use of wisdom 
will, nevertheless, be of some use. Even though cosmology is not directly 
relevant to character formation, it is still relevant in that it enhances the 
mind, uplifts it, and trains it. The allegation is that metaphysical subtlety 
has no such positive impact (in contrast to cosmology) — so Seneca is 
prepared to argue for the distinction between some non-ethical studies 
and others. He does not, then, hold a purely Aristonian position, but one 
open to some parts of physics. For this view of the Utility of cosmological 
reflection, see e.g., 65.15, 19-22, 74.20, 88.14-15,28,36, NQ_ 1, esp. pref. 
12, 17 (recalling that the work is dedicated to Lucilius), ad Helviam 20 
and De Otio 5. 

'you people' refers most likely to members of his own school. It is not 
clear whether Lucilius is meant to be included. 

117.20 A pragmatic challenge to the Utility of the metaphysical dis- 
tinction. Seneca would roll the dice about which he got (wisdom or 
'being wise'). Since they are necessarily concomitant, if they are dis- 
tinet, he can bet with no risk. Seneca does not, even now, claim that 
the distinction is false (though he hints at such a claim). Compare 
58.31 for a similar pragmatic challenge. The questions 'What good 
will it do me...?' are clearly rhetorical questions. Anyone who had 
read the letter to this point would take the questions as equivalent 
to the claim that it does not matter which he got (wisdom or 'being 
wise') precisely on the basis of Seneca's own theory. Seneca does not 
claim (contra Cooper 2004: 331) that it does not matter which theo- 
ry (the mainstream Stoic theory or Seneca's revision) is true. Rather, 
Seneca is claiming on the basis of his own theory that it does not 
matter whether one possesses wisdom or 'being wise'. For 117.33 see 

LETTER 117 303 

1 17.21 -5 Seneca illustrates the issues on which wisdom is properly 
expended (not the digressive use of cosmology sketched above). Moral 
training (character formation) is central; pursuit and avoidance (i.e., 
practical choice), the acquisition of wisdom, and the management of 
passions amidst misfortune and good fortune alike, and the proper handling 
of one's own mortality — this is a typical Senecan sketch of the main issues 
in practical ethics and the conclusion with a consideration of death is 
particularly characteristic. On death see, e.g., 70.15, 77.12 and my general 
discussion in 'Natural Law in Seneca' and 'Seneca on Freedom and 
Autonomy', ch. 8 and ch. 1 1 of Inwood 2005. 

117.23 'you are asking for what is already yours' i.e., you are wishing 
for something which is fully within your power; hence asking for it is 

'extremely shamefuP. It is not clear whether 'these days' refers to the time 
when Seneca read this exordium or whether (as the word order suggests) 
the shamefulness is particularly acute at the time of writing this letter. 
If we think of Seneca as mounting a rigourist protest against current 
decadent trends, this interpretation is preferable. If we take 'these days' 
as the time when Seneca read this exordium then we should translate legi 
as 'I have been reading' to maintain the appropriate sense of immediacy. 

'water, earth, air'. It is possible that by spiritus Seneca means pneuma 
rather than ordinary air. 

1 17.22-4 is presented as an example of how one can argue about attitudes 
to death. It is at the same time a sharp-tongued piece of social comment on 
the hypocrisy of a professional orator. The kind of posturing often called 
for in such a practice is fundamentally at odds with the critical application 
of moral thinking which Stoicism in all of its versions recommends. 
See, however, the description of ethically sound rhetoric at 108. 12- 13, 
where the discourse of Seneca's former teacher Attalus is contrasted with 
'ambiguities, syllogisms, sophisms, and the other frivolities of pointlessly 
sharp wits'. Compare also 102.20. 

1 17.25-6 Sharp contrast between serious questions and mere amuse- 
ments. 117.26 shows the acute concern with the reputation Stoics get for 
frivolity. Is this a real concern for Stoics in Seneca's time and place? Barnes 
1997 argues that the concerns expressed by Seneca and Epictetus about 


logicai frivolity are a reflection of the tenor of philosophical activity in the 
schools at the time. Surely this is so — there is certainly no reason to doubt 
the evidence of Seneca's own complaints. So Seneca's resistance to such 
technical 'frivolity' marks him as a kind of pragmatic rigourist — surely 
a reputable enough stance within any intellectual movement. Attalus 
(108.13) is surely one model for Seneca in this regard, but Aristo is 

117.25 'toy weapons'. See 85.1, 82.23-4. 

1 17.26-9 Seneca offers as a parallel case an equally questionable tech- 
nical quaestio about the reality of future goods. The way to resolve it is 
presented as being obvious, as indeed it is. The mere faet of futurity 
establishes the absence of the attribute in the present. Like the quaestio 
of this letter, it deals with a topic of moral importance in a morally 
insignificant way as a mere exercise of the intellect. In 117.29 this issue is 
brought back to the moral sphere. 

1 17.30-3 The pressures of time help us to understand what is genuinely 
important business and what is a waste of our time. Our own behaviour is 
offered up as evidence of our true sense of priorities. In considering how 
we waste our limited time in leisure (iuvat magis quam prodest), Seneca 
concludes with a power ful statement of the practical goal of philosophy as 
a form of cure or treatment. 

For 'checkers' — latrunculi — as a symbol for unserious activity, see 
106.11. The counterfactual examples in 117.30 have an amusing edge to 
them, which contributes to the power of the passage (see Grant 2000: 325). 

117.32 That health, business etc. are mere time-occupiers is a common 
(and credible) theme. See 99.11. 

117.33 Being 'tied down' or 'held back' (detinere) with mere words about 
wisdom (rather than deeds) evokes the common contrast between logoi 
and erga and also recalls Seneca's diagnosis of how mainstream Stoics got 
themselves into this difficult position: in 117.6 he says that they are held 
back (teneri) by their initial commitments. The metaphor of being bound 
to a philosophical position seems to be a live one in this letter. 

Here Seneca does say that it does not matter which theory is true, the 
mainstream Stoic view or his own (see on 117.20 above and Cooper 2004: 
33 1), but this is a rhetorical gesture. In faet, Seneca has made it quite clear 

LETTER 117 305 

in the body of the letter that he thinks that his own theory is true, and he 
has already taken the view (117.20), relying on his theory, that it makes 
no difference whether one possesses wisdom or is wise just because they 
are both good. The expression of indifference here at the end of the letter 
is clearly hyperbole. 

'superior to fortune'. Cf 66.6, Brev. Vit. 5. 

LETTERS 1 18-124 

The final group of letters consists of Book 20 of the collection. The unity of 
this group, then, is different from that in Groups 1 -4, which were selected 
on thematic grounds. It is useful to have one example of the literary unity 
represented by Seneca's inclusion of these letters in a single book; see 
Introduction pp. xii-xv, xxi-xxiii. Even the letters in Book 20 which 
might not have been included on philosophical grounds alone provide 
valuable context for some of the most important philosophical letters of 
the collection (120, 121, 124) as well as 118. Despite the importance of the 
grouping by book, there is nevertheless an important thematic connection 
between the theme of the good in 117 and 118, which in turn anticipates 
themes in 120, 121, and 124. ' For the theme of the nature of the good, see 
also 66, 71, and esp. 76.15. 

Commentary on 118 

I have been unable to obtain E. G. Schmidt, Der 118. Brief Senecas. Eine 
Studie zur Polemik zwischen Stoa und Peripatos, (Diss. Leipzig, 1958) but 
his important research is represented by two articles, Schmidt 1960 and 
Schmidt 1974. 

Thematic division 

1-4: An example of how one can write morally significant letters 

about apparent trivialities. 
5-7: The bad consequences in our lives of not knowing what 

the good is. 
8-9: Various definitions of the good. Its attractive qualities and 

its normativity are both necessary to a proper account of 

the good. Honestum and good must be connected. 

1 See Schmidt 1974: 66. 

LETTER Il8 307 

10— 11: Relationship between honourable and good clarified. In 
effect, the perfection built in to honestum marks off 'good' 
strictly speaking from 'good' in a loose sense. 

12-17: The relationship between what is good and what is accord- 
ing to nature. Natural in a broad sense and natural in 
the narrow sense. The role of 'magnitude' in this and the 
peculiar linkage of it to growth and transformation. 

The central philosophical theme of this letter is the identification and 
explication of the Stoic conception of the good in contrast primarily to 
several alternative conceptions of it, especially those associated with the 
Peripatetic/Academic position known best from Fin. 4-5 (though found 
elsewhere in Cicero, especially in his reports about Antiochus (e.g., De 
Legibus 1.55). Seneca at 118. 12 accepts as his basic Stoic definition the 
same formulation as Cicero adopted at Fin. 3.33 (that of Diogenes of 
Babylon), and goes on to explore what we can recognize as difficulties in 
the Stoic position (as he also does in 120). Hence it is natural to see it in the 
context of Seneca's general preoccupation with the issues of Cicero's De 
Finibus. His philosophical and literary rivalry with Cicero seems to peak 
in this book of the letters, with explicit allusions to the Letters to Atticus 
(the most important literary target for Seneca's ambitions) and repeated 
concern for problems raised, at times implicitly, in the De Finibus. Note 
also that 97 makes use of Letters to Atticus 1.16. For further comment on 
Seneca's engagement with Cicero here, see Ker 2002: 178-88. 

118.1 On the demand for more frequent letters, see also 38.1. 

Cicero's Letters to Atticus 1 . 1 2 is a typically informal note from Cicero to 
his intimate friend. The reason it came to Seneca's mind is almost certainly 
the concluding remarks made by Cicero to Atticus. After saying that he has 
nothing more to write to Atticus, that he was in faet extremely upset while 
writing, not least because of the death of a Greek servant (Sositheus, his 
'reader'), he continues, Td like you to write me often; if you have nothing 
[to say], just write whatever comes into your head'. But Seneca says that it 
is Lucilius who has been asking for more frequent letters — which would 
appear to cast Lucilius in the role of Cicero (upset and asking for more 
letters) and Seneca in the role of Atticus (not distraught and expected to 
write to his friend to cheer him up). This, of course, Seneca does. In Letters 
to Atticus 1. 1 3 Cicero notes that he has just received three letters from 
Atticus in the intervening twenty-five days (between New Year's Day and 


January 25), all sent during his journey from Rome to Brundisium to take 
ship. Atticus, then, performed his duty as a friend and so will Seneca. 

The events which caused Cicero such upset were partly domestic (the 
death of Sositheus, to which Cicero admits he has a disproportionate 
response) and partly political. The elections at issue for Cicero were 
hardly trivial in the politics of the late Republic, and he even mentions the 
late-breaking scandal involving Clodius' desecration of the festival of the 
Bona Dea — a scandal of great political moment. See How and Clark 1926, 
vol. 2: 66-7 (on Letters to Atticus 1.13.3). The scandal was very recent 
(it probably took place in early December 62 when Clodius had already 
been elected quaestor and 1.12, written 1 January 61, must be the earliest 
reference to it). Yet all of this is dismissed by Seneca (for whose society 
elections had become a genuine irrelevance) in 1 18.2-4. He begins with a 
reminiscence of the rapacity of Caecilius {Letters to Atticus 1.12.1) in 118.2 
and ends with a comparison of Cicero's enemy Vatinius with Cicero's 
friend (and Seneca's hero) Cato; the comparison is used to illustrate the 
ultimate irrelevance oifortuna and what it controls (118.4, cf. Vatinius in 
120.19, where the point is consistency of character). 

1 18.2 Seneca, unlike Cicero, has no trouble finding something to write 
about (here Cicero is regarded not as the friend asking for consolatory 
trivia but as the author of letters filled with political trivia). His superiority 
to Cicero is thus claimed explicitly, though only by way of admitting his 
own failings ('one's own faults' cf. 68.6-9). 

1 18.3-4 Electoral activity becomes a metaphor for all of one's anxious 
engagement with events governed by fortuna. The politically admirable 
man is one who does not canvass for support when running for office, 
content to rely on his merits alone; the admirable person in life as a whole 
is one who asks for no support trom fortuna and is similarly content to rely 
on his merits alone. The comparison with Plato's Socrates (who in the 
Apology professed to reject any reliance on the support of rhetorical tools 
and of his friends and family when defending himself on a capital charge) 
cannot be missed, especially when Cato is introduced as a foil for Vatinius, 
a notoriously manipulative election campaigner. That a villain can win in 
the contests of fortune while a good person loses (as also happened with 
Socrates) is proof, for Seneca, that anything which is a hostage to fortune 
cannot really count in life. Some think that Plato responded to Socrates' 
political failure by articulating the kind of Utopia in which the wise person 
could be a successful citizen; quite possibly the Stoic Republic of Zeno and 

LETTER Il8 309 

Chrysippus had a similar purpose. Like Plato, Seneca dismisses the actual 
politics of his own society as a hopeless environment for the truly good 

1 18.4 This is meant to remind the reader of the proem of book 2 of 
Lucretius On the Nature ofThings: suave mari magno.. . . The things looked 
down on here include electoral striving, wealth, and military activity. I 
am sceptical about Ker's attempt to connect the language of 'watching' 
here with theoria and a Senecan exploration of the significance of the bios 
theoretikos (Ker 2002: 183-8). 

'no business with you, fortune'. Cf De Vita Beata 25.5. 

'reduce fortune to the ranks'. More literally, 'to make fortune private'. 
To be 'private' is to hold no official rank, civil or military. Hence an 
ordinary citizen or common soldier are both private in this sense. Seneca 
is here invoking both senses, and perhaps one might translate 'this is what 
it means to kick fortune out of office' — which would work better with the 
political metaphors in play so far in the letter. 

118. 5-7 These sections describe the pitiable condition of people who 
misunderstand the nature of the good because they rely on 'gossip', or 
popular opinion, rumores. It is the remoteness of things {ex intervallo) 
from our assessing minds which leads to their misevaluation. This might 
remind us of the art of measurement in Plato's Protagoras 356-7. 

1 18.5 'public contract'. This presumably refers to a tax collection 
contract, one of the most lucrative opportunities for businessmen in 
Rome's overseas empire. 

1 18.7 'false report'. Stoics identified two main causes of moral corruption 
(diastrophe) among rational animals who possess sound natural inclinations: 
the persuasiveness of external things and the erroneous opinions of one's 
fellow humans (D.L. 7.89). Seneca here alludes to the second of these. 
See inter alia the reference to the populi praecepta at 94.52. (I am grateful 
to Margaret Graver for discussion of this point.) 

1 18.8 This is an unusually explicit statement of the motivation for a 
quaestio (NB quaeramus). Avoidance of moral harm is the goal of learning 
what the good truly is. Since the good is tied very closely to benefit in 
Socratic and Stoic theory, this is unsurprising but nonetheless noteworthy. 


118.8-12 A series of definitions of the good and objections. Schmidt 
1974 surveys the previous history of such definitions in the Greek tradi- 
tion and, using the familiar assumptions of traditional Quellenforschung, 
attempts to locate the Greek source or sources for Seneca's discussion 
here. Such reasoning is too precarious to yield reliable conclusions; in 
particular, the assumption that there was a close translation from a Greek 
source into the detailed wording of Seneca's Latin exerts excessive influ- 
ence on his weighing of possible Greek sources. Hence he rejects quite 
sensible suggestions about the influence of Cicero {Fin. 3) on Seneca's 
discussion on the grounds that it is not supported by sufficiently exact 
textual comparisons ('genaue Textvergleiche'). Despite the limitations 
of an outdated methodology, Schmidt provides a thorough survey of 
poten tially relevant evidence on the definition of the good; his discussion 
demonstrates, at the very least, that Seneca was closely familiar with the 
complexities of various school traditions and that he was concerned to 
allude to that technical material in his own discussion. Exact tracing of 
Seneca's inspiration is probably impossible (as with 58 and 65) but his use 
here of philosophical technicality fits well with his general strategy. 

Seneca has interesting remarks on the possibility of different formu- 
lations of one basic idea at De Vita Beata 4, esp. 4.1: 'our good can also 
be defined differently, that is, the same view can be expressed in words 
which are not the same.' Here, none of these definitions exactly reflects 
the standard set of Stoic definitions of good in terms of benefit (DL 7.94 
ff., Ecl. 2.69-70, S. E. M. 11.22). Cicero {Fin. 3.33) adopts Diogenes 
of Babylon's definition: the good is what is perfect by nature, natura 
absolutum but recognizes definitions cast in terms of benefit. But the point 
below about secundam naturam does pick up the teleion kata phusin logikou 
hos logikou (D.L. 7.94). Despite the unsupported dismissal by Schmidt 
(1974: 77: Cicero 'der freilich nicht etwa Senecas Vorlage ist!') Cicero is 
probably the proximate reference point for Seneca's discussion here. 

1 18.8 begins with the claim that the good is what motivates us to pursue 
it. That is, the good is thought of simply as a formal object of human 
pursuit or desire. The objection is obvious and based on the situation 
Seneca has described in 118. 5-6 — there are many things which attrået 
us but nevertheless harm us, especially if we are uncritical. So one must 
specify that a good be a true good. But there is as yet no criterion for 

In 1 18.9 essentially the same formulation is repeated with the addition 
of some technical jargon from Stoic action theory {appetitio, impetus animi) 

LETTER Il8 311 

standing in the place of the non-technical invitat in the first definition. 
This formulation is subject to essentially the same objection. We might 
well ask, then, what the point of this repetition is. Perhaps to stress that 
the progress we might make in understanding the good does not come 
from a reformulation in philosophical jargon (no matter how authoritative 
the source might be) of an unsatisfactory basic idea. 

The successful definition is the one which invokes nature and the 
Stoic distinction between mere pursuit and successful pursuit. That the 
criterion of genuineness (note the emphasis on verum bonum above) should 
be 'the naturaP is what we expect of a Stoic. Although we might also 
like to have some detail here, Seneca is presupposing a reasonable grasp 
of Stoicism in his readers; indeed, readers who have persevered through 
106, 113, 117 would obviously be a suitable audience for this letter. At 
this point all we get is the contrast between what is according to nature 
and what is a matter of mere popular opinion. There is nothing new or 
interesting about this contrast of nature and convention. 

The contrast between petendum and expetendum, though, is consequen- 
tial. I translate expetendum as 'choiceworthy' in the belief that the Greek 
term haireton lies behind it, as has been long recognized; see the glossary 
in volume 4 of SVF. The term 'choiceworthy' is properly applied only 
to the good and not to indifferents (see Inwood 1985: ch. 6), whereas 
petendum seems to pick out the objects of selection and rejection (ekloge 
and apekloge, selectio). But Seneca's explanation here of the relationship 
petere and expetere makes a very particular claim about the relationship 
between ordinary pursuit of things and choice: what is expetendum is 
perfecte petendum, as though it were a refinement or perfection of pursuit 
which constitutes choice rather than a pursuit of a different kind of object. 
Compare the analysis of selection and choice in Inwood 1985: ch. 6. 

118.10-11 Since Seneca has introduced obliquely the contrast between 
the objects of mere pursuit and the object of choice, between indifferents 
and the good, it is reasonable for him to reflect on the difference. He does 
so in less than technical language, by discussing the relationship between 
what is good and what is honourable (the bonum and the honestum). In 
Stoicism the terms would normally be synonymous or at the very least 
extensionally equivalent: only the honourable is good. hoti monon to kalon 
agathon kata Platona was the title of a book by Antipater and the doctrine 
is as old as Stoicism — indeed, it is a fundamental difference between 
Stoic and Peripatetic moral theory; see also Cicero, Fin. 3.27 for the proof 
that the good is honourable and D.L. 7.100 for the doctrine that what 


is perfectly good is honourable. The good itself is defined in terms of 
the genuine benefit it brings (see e.g., Ecl. 2.69, Sextus Empiricus, M. 
11.22-33, D.L. 7.94). 

What Seneca does here is to treat good as conceptually dependent 
on the honourable. There are some things which are indifferent — his 
examples are all political, echoing the scenario for the letter: military, 
diplomatic, and judicial service. They are only properly called good if 
they are pursued honourably (and in that sense are honourable) — that 
is, it is their honestas which plays the role of cause and criterion for 
genuine goodness. Their goodness is portrayed as a result of honestas. Yet 
since the two terms are extensionally equivalent, what is the point of this 
emphasis? Perhaps the point is primarily epistemological. The nature of 
what is good (as opposed to preferred) is a question open to debate among 
right-thinking people, but no one participating in this debate (and no one 
who holds conventional moral views) doubts the status of honestas. Hence 
when trying to sort out the status of a positive value it is no use to invoke 
'good' as a decisive factor — that would bepetitio principii, since the issue is 
whether the positive value in question is a preferred indifferent or a good. 
(We might think of electoral success, as Seneca does in this letter: it is in 
faet a preferred indifferent, like other forms of social success, but might 
well be confused with a genuine good). Instead, one must look to honestas. 
Hence we ask whether Cato or Vatinius is being honestus to answer the 
question about the status of electoral success. So in this epistemological 
sense 'good flows from [can be inferred from] the honourable'. 

But does honestas also play a genuinely causal role? That is, if one 
assumes that the debate is over and that we are operating wholly within 
a refined Stoic framework for moral language, would honestum still have 
an appropriate kind of priority? Seneca seems unmistakably to be saying 
yes, but it is not clear to me that he is right to do so. It seems as though 
he cannot quite get free of his imagined dialectical and polemical setting. 
The divergence from a more standard form of Stoicism (for which see 
92.11-13) comes out clearly at the end of 118.11, where Seneca says that 
what is good could have been bad — and that is true just in the sense that 
the particular indifferent which is, in the case before us, good might (if 
honestas were absent) have been bad. So it is not 'good' as such which 
might have been bad but the indifferent which in a particular context turns 
out to be good. If the term honestum were treated in the same way (as a 
predicate applied to a particular indifferent) then the same thing would be 
true of it; for honestum does have a broad, non-Stoic sense as well (it refers 
to social standing and respectability as well as to moral fmeness). Hence 

LETTER Il8 313 

to make sense of the contrast here we have to assume that Seneca is using 
honestum only in a special and narrowly Stoic sense when he treats it as 
the cause of good things being good. At the same time he is using 'good' 
in both a broad and a narrowly Stoic sense. This is not strictly justifiable 
in normal Stoic moral theory. But it is strongly reminiscent of the way 
Plato, in the Meno (88de), treats phroriesis (a virtue) as what makes other 
'goods' good in virtue of the way it uses those other things. In 92.11-13 
Seneca makes it clear that in the selection of a preferred indifferent the 
factor which is virtuous is the proper choice of the indiffferent: 'it is our 
actions which are honourable, not the objects of our actions.' I thank 
Marta Jimenez for helpful discussion on this point. 

118. 10 'happy life'. See also De Vita Beata 4.3. 

118. 12 The fourth definition: the good is what is according to nature. 
The objection this time is posed by Seneca. 'NaturaP is a term of wider 
extension than is appropriate for a definition of the good, since it also covers 
preferred indifferents. Seneca expresses the contrast between preferreds 
and goods as a matter of scale, a matter of size. Yet, as 118. 13 makes clear 
(and as is normal Stoic doctrine), the good is in faet qualitatively different 
from the preferred, so that there is a deeper difference between natural in 
its two senses than can be captured just by the notion 'magnitude'. (As 
Seneca puts it in 118. 13, how can two things which share a crucial feature, 
naturalness, also be distinguished by an essential difference?) Hence 
the notion of completeness invoked in 118. 12 ought to involve something 
conceptually richer. In 120 and 124 Seneca distinguishes goodness relative 
to a species and absolute goodness (for which see also S. E. M, 9.109), 
as he did in 76 (see on 76.7- 11), and Cicero in Fin, 3.34 also contrasts 
differences of kind and differences of degree. See also De Legibus 1.55, De 
Natura Deorum 1.16, and the acute remarks of Barnes 1989: 88. 

But in 118. 14 Seneca argues that scale can introduce qualitative differ- 
ence, that there are qualitative discontinuities which are determined solely 
by scale. He gives us an example where the quantity is supposed to make a 
difference. The quantity is age and the difference is between non-rational 
and rational status. Is this merely a bit of ad hoccery? It is certainly 
reasonable to entertain the notion that differences of scale can generate 
differences of quality. Certain teleological processes might well work this 
way, if the goal of a normative or natural size is reached by quantitative 
increments. Supposing that (say) six feet is the 'natural' height of an adult 
male, the addition of the final inch in height completes the man in the way 


that the inch of growth that took him to five feet in height did not. Cicero 
uses the idea of quantitative change yielding qualitative change on behalf 
of the Stoics (Fin. 3.44-5), Seneca invokes it crucially in 66.19-20, and 
the Stoic theory of complete mixture seems to entail it (a small enough 
drop of wine in the Aegean Sea will be qualitatively converted). Morever, 
the notion can still be regarded as coherent. See Gould 2002: 231: 'A 
sufficient difference in quantity translates to what we call difference in 
quality ipso facto,' just as the Stoics said. Schmidt 1960 examines Seneca's 
claims about quantity-quality transformations at some length against the 
background of earlier Greek philosophy (especially paradoxes such as 
the sorites and the 'bald man') and in the light of Hegel's interest in 
the phenomenon. 

However, the plausibility of Seneca's position here (1 18. 14- 15) depends 
on specifying a special set of objects ('certain things' quaedam) for which 
this is true, but in 118. 15 the opponent successfully introduces examples 
which don't work this way. Should this bother Seneca? Is he being 
arbitrary? That depends on whether one can accept his examples as 
apposite and see something non-arbitrary about them. 'Age' in 118. 14 
is the first example, for which compare perhaps 124.9- 10; similarly, 
121 presents a detailed account of the natural growth of a human from 
non-rational to rational status. In 118. 16 he invokes the keystone of 
an arch (an example which might well be viewed as being teleological 
like many other craft products). In 118. 17 he shifts ground slightly and 
introduces examples of how a conceptual discontinuity can occur during 
quantitative extension — but both infinity and atomicity are idealizations 
and so hardly decisive. But they are apt examples, both, as Mitsis has 
pointed out, of interest to an Epicurean (whose world consists of atoms 
and the infinite void); the account of infinity ought to be acceptable also to 
a Stoic, a mathematician or an Aristotelian. This perhaps points forward 
to the more Epicurean atmosphere of 119, just as the interest here in the 
need for extrapolation and projection in concept formation points to the 
epistemological themes of 120. 

But despite Seneca's ingenuity in generating candidate parallels, the 
examples all tend to show that it is nol just scale which explains qualitative 
change. In none of these cases is it merely a matter of more-on-the-same- 
scale. There are key biological changes independent of the passing of years. 
The keystone plays a unique role in completing the sequence; it is not just 
the last of the stones in the arch, as is suggested by Seneca's reference to 
'completing' the arch in 118. 16. And mental projection involves, I would 
say, a leap of the imagination. Seneca, who may well have been attempting 

LETTER 119 315 

to justify in more detail the suggestions of Cicero in Fin. 3.44-5, has failed 
to justify the claim that difference in scale can constitute the right sort of 
difference in kind. 

118. 16 'fills it up' i.e., completes it by filling in the otherwise empty 

118. 17 'uncuttable' i.e., atomic. 

Commentary on 119 

Thematic division 

1-6: Philosophical 'investment advice': true wealth depends on 
recognizing the natural limits of desire. 
7-10: Objections and rebuttal. Alexander the Great is not a role 

1 1 - 1 3 : We are deceived by conventional values. 
14-16: Natural simplicity and the ready fulfilment of genuine 

See the helpful discussion by Albrecht 2004: 43-51. 

1 19. 1 The letter's theme is set up by a play on commercial-scale 
lending. Seneca, like most Roman aristocrats, was constantly involved in 
the lending and borrowing of money (as for election expenses in 118.2), so 
the metaphor comes readily to mind in a variety of contexts (compare 87.7 
on borrowing from fortune). Here the metaphor plays a pervasive role in 
the letter. 

119. 2 'famous phrase of Cato'. This is the Elder Cato, the Censor who 
was famous for his maxims full of homely advice and wisdom (also featured 
in 87.9-10). To borrow from oneself can be sound financial practice in 
some economies (we might think of it as financing expansion out of 
retained earnings instead of raising capital in the bond market). Seneca's 
emphasis here is on self-sufficiency with regard to one's desires; hence the 
attraction of this comparison to financial self-sufficiency. 

For the transvaluing of wealth, see also 1.5, 2.6, 17, 20, 87, 110, Tranq. 
An. 8-9, Ben. 7.1, etc. The Stoic paradox that only the wise person is 
rich reflects similar doctrines. See, e.g., Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum 6. 


The main thesis of the present letter, that nature's needs are few and that 
self-sufficiency is easily achieved, is common to Stoics and Epicureans (as 
Seneca is well aware, 4.10, 16.10, 27.9), and indeed to other schools as well; 
cf. Stilpo at 9.18-20 as a non-Stoic paradigm of self-sufficiency whose 
views are shared with Stoicism (Epicurus is presented, polemically, as a 
critic of Stilpo). But for most of the present letter the atmosphere is more 
Epicurean (though this changes at 119. 15). The final sentence emphasizes 
the connection between simplicity and autonomy (again, reflected in the 
commercial me taphor with which the letter begins). 119 urges a greater 
degree of self-sufficiency than Seneca portrays himself as having achieved 
in 87. The influence of the proem to book 2 of Lucretius' DRN (esp. lines 
14-58) is evident. 

Two substantial claims are made in this section. The first is that there 
is no significant difference between not feeling the lack of something and 
possessing it. In one sense this is clearly false. To desire a glass of beer 
and have one right at hånd is a quite different situation from not desiring 
a beer at all (whether or not one is available). Seneca is encouraging his 
readers to focus not on the differences between the two situations but 
on what they have in common, the absence of unsatisfied desire, a state 
characterized by 'anguish' or severe mental unease. The second claim is 
that one's natural desires are implacable (that one cannot be content if they 
are unfulfilled) but minimal (cf. 17.9). The fulfilment of desires beyond 
this minimum requires collaboration from sources outside oneself but is 
fortunately not a necessity. 

Together these claims yield an essentially Epicurean theory. See Letter 
to Menoeceus 127-32. The Principal Doctrines are more succinct. KD 29: 
'Of desires, some are natural <and necessary, some natural> and not 
necessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary but are a product 
of baseless opinion'. A scholiast adds: 'Epicurus thinks that the desires 
which free us from pains are natural and necessary, as does drink when 
we are thirsty; the natural and not necessary are those which merely vary 
our pleasure but do not remove the pain, such as expensive foods; those 
which are neither natural nor necessary are [for things like] crowns and 
the dedication of statues.' Crowns were awarded for athletic victories, as 
honorific recognition for civic services, as a mark of civic office, etc. and 
so seem to stand for a wide range of social honours. (Cf. KD 26, 30). The 
'anguish' which results from the failure to fulfil a desire is a disturbance 
that can be avoided if one limits one's desires to those which are natural, 
necessary and easily satisfied with minimal resources; in this respect, then, 
one can easily be free of disturbance and so attain the Epicurean goal of 

LETTER 119 317 

life (ataraxia). As Epicurus says at KD 21, 'the person who knows the 
limits of life realizes that the things which eliminate the pain which comes 
from want and make one's entire life complete are easy to acquire; hence 
there is no need for things accompanied by competition.' Cf Sent. Vat. 
33 ('the cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be 
cold') where 'flesh' stands for the minimal demands of nature. 

Hence 119's emphasis on the easy fulfilment of desire suitably accom- 
panies 118's dismissive attitude towards the strivings of electoral politics 
(note the allusion to Lucretius at 118.4). 

The Epicurean strain of this letter is unmistakable and surely inten- 
tional, and Seneca has already employed Epicurus' revisionist definition 
of wealth in the letters (4.10, 16.7, 27.9); but Phillip Mitsis has urged 
(in private discussion) that this not be overemphasized. The emphasis 
here is on desire satisfaction rather than on pleasure; the positive value of 
pleasure seems to be absent from the letter. The Epicurean ideas here are 
given a particularly ascetic interpretation. It is also important to bear in 
mind that nothing in this letter is not also compatible with Stoicism and 
indeed the principal ideas of 119 could have been expressed without the 
Epicurean trappings; 94.43 invokes traditional proverbs in support of the 
same ideas. Although Seneca's explicit references to Epicurus diminish 
in the second half of the collection of letters, it would be misleading to 
claim that Seneca structures the letters around a development away from 

1 19.3-4 The claim that one's natural physical constitution is indifferent 
to the way hunger and thirst are satisfied is important to Seneca's case, 
but it is certainly not an uncontentious claim. That there is a dramatic 
devotion to culinary superfluity in many cultures is beyond question. 
But that nature's wants are as simple and unconditional as Seneca and 
the Epicureans thought seems false, at least with the wisdom of modern 
nutritional science at our disposal. For bread and water as true wealth, 
compare 110.18 (substituting^o/e«;« for bread); for the irrelevance of the 
cup, see 76.15. 

In this letter Seneca focusses solely on the claim that the natural 
desires are minimal. In effect, he concentrates on that set of desires which 
Epicurus classified as natural and necessary. The existence of natural and 
necessary desires for things which would pro vide variety in one's pleasures 
is important to Epicurus; there is positive reason to satisfy such desires 
providing the difficulty and risk required to do so is not significant. Risk 
and discomfort cannot be justified since non-necessary desires do not 


contribute to the goal of life, which is the ultimate motivator. Similarly 
Stoicism recognizes the positive motivational significance of preferred 
indifferents, such as wealth. In this letter Seneca does not overtly leave 
room for such positive motivations (as he does elsewhere) since he is 
concentrating on the drawbacks attendant on the pursuit of wealth, 
especially the psychological risks that it brings. 

1 19.4 'the goal of all things'. The finis of all things is what one looks 
to in making the significant decisions in one's life. It would have been 
appropriate for Seneca to expand a bit on how looking to the Stoic goal 
yields the same conclusions as looking to the Epicurean goal, but he does 
not do so here; see 119.6. 

1 19.5 Lucilius' return to the financial metaphor enables Seneca to 
motivate his transvaluation of 'wealth' into 'natural wealth', the idea which 
shapes the rest of the letter. At Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.101.14-20 conventional 
wealth is distinguished from true wealth, which only the wise person can 
possess. See also 110.18. 

'wise person'. For earlier Stoics, not only is a wise person only interested 
in pursuing natural wealth, but one of the Stoic paradoxes claims that 
only the wise person is rich. See Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum 6, SVF 

'who lacks nothing' (cut nihil deest). Compare Cicero, De Republica 1.28 
'Who thinks that there is anyone wealthier than the one who lacks nothing 
(cut nihil desit), at least nothing of what nature desires'. 

1 19.6 Wealth is a matter of having enough, that is, not lacking anything 
which is desirable by nature. (Cf 2.6 'he who desires more is poor'; 1.5 
'I do not think poor anyone for whom the little bit left is enough.') Only 
limitations on desire enable us ever to say that we have enough. See 
1 19.9 below. 

'proscribed for it'. Proscription is the process whereby the property of 
a condemned man is confiscated. It was often abused during periods of 
revolutionary upheaval and when tyrannicai power was exercised; wealth 
alone could put a person at risk of unjust condemnation. 

The notion of the 'goal' (finis) here is critical. The relationship of 'having 
enough' or not lacking what nature needs to the Stoic goal (living according 

LETTER 119 319 

to nature, in any of its many formulations) is not clear. Yet it is unlikely 
that Seneca here has in mind specifically the Epicureanyføw. Per haps his 
point is more general, that the mere having of a goal defines a limit for one's 
activities and desires and that such a limit enables us to define something 
as being 'enough'. At EN 1.2 iog4a22-4 Aristotle claims awareness of a 
goal makes a big difference to our success in life, and this claim is made 
before he gives any specification of what the goal is. Aristotle begins his 
ethics with strong general claims about the need for a goal in order that 
human action should have an organized structure. The need for a goal 
here might be similarly abstract. 

The ironic suggestion that danger and drawbacks might be a test of real 
wealth has some point — the truly desirable is something for which one is 
willing to suffer and take risks. 

'someone who has a great deal desires more'. Cf 16.8, 87.7, 119.9. 

1 19.7 Jupiter and Alexander as benchmarks. Jupiter, of course, needs 
nothing. So having a great deal cannot be his measure of happiness. He 
is happy without 'wealth' — cf. 76.25 and 74.14. But Alexander is the 
contrary case: he is wealthy without happiness (1 19.7-8). Alexander is 
also used as a foil at Ben. 7.2.5-6. Furthermore, at 119. 8 Alexander 
illustrates the faet that conventional wealth can be lost. 

'bursts the ramparts (claustrd) of the world'. An allusion to Lucretius' 
characteristic formula 'ramparts of the world' (moenia mundi), often 
repeated in Lucretius (see esp. 1.73, where this phrase closely follows on 
a reference to breaking the claustra of nature, the very word Seneca uses 
here (1.70-1). 

1 19.9 'Crassus and Licinus'. Seneca refers to Crassus the triumvir and 
opponent of Cato the Younger; his wealth was proverbial. Licinus (see 
also 120.19) was a freedman of Julius Caesar who became wealthy and 
successful. His luxurious spending became notorious. 

'starts to be able to get more'. The ability to get more is probably both 
psychological (see 119.6, having a great deal increases one's desires) and 
material: a certain level of wealth, 'more' than the minimum required by 
nature, facilitates the acquisition of even 'more' wealth than one already 
has. The ambiguity of 'more' is intentional. See also 2.6, 16.8 ('from these 
you learn to desire more') and the traditional maxim cited at 94.43. 


'he is poor'. That is, he lacks the genuine goods with respect to which the 
wise man is wealthy. 

'he can be poor'. That is, even on conventional grounds the risk of 
poverty is present, since conventional wealth can be lost. Seneca is not 
here making the point about mortgaging and net worth (see 87.5-6), but 
rather focusses on the risk of loss which afflicts conventional wealth ('he 
can be poor'); see 119.6 on risk. A person intent on 'naturaP wealth is free 
of such risk and the fear of loss (119. 10; cf 14.18). 

119. 10 The point about fear of poverty carries on the theme of risk. 

'something superfluous'. The limits on our needs and desires imposed 
by nature are so severe that even a person who passes for 'poor' on 
conventional grounds may have more than nature demands. Compare 

1 19. 1 1 This is a straightforward contrast between conventional wealth 
(which is valued partly for its ability to confer status through public 
display) and 'inner wealth' or the possession of genuine goods. The wise 
person is wealthy because he possesses all possible good things (that is 
virtue and what participates in virtue). These goods are invisible to the 
general public and immune to fortune's risks. Cf. 76.6, 94.69. 

119. 12 'frantic poverty'. The lack of genuine goods is poverty; the 
possession of conventional wealth is a source of anxiety since it is 
vulnerable to loss. Cf. 14.18. 

'fever'. This comparison exploits an idiom in Latin which English shares. 
Fever can be portrayed as something we have or as something which 
afflicts us. To the extent that conventional wealth is similar, Seneca 
argues that a similar double perspective should be adopted: wealth is 
not just a possession but something which can harm us if it comes to 
dominate. Stoicism does not, in faet, treat wealth itself as an affliction. 
Money is a preferred indifferent and can be enjoyed. (See on 87.) But 
the love of wealth is a disease and Seneca's point here is simply that 
conventional wealth, if not understood for what it is, conduces to this 
disease, which is itself a source of many erroneous actions. Once one 
incorrectly deems conventional wealth to be good, it has a powerful 
motivational hold. The comparison to fever here might seem to go beyond 

LETTER 119 321 

this standard Stoic doctrine on the indifferents by suggesting that a 
dispreferred indifferent and a preferred indifferent are indistinguishable 
in their moral significance. But the point of the comparison lies primarily 
in the way a mistaken judgement about the good can make us victims; 
our bodily frailty victimizes us and our intellectual frailty can do likewise. 
Seneca's argument here does not commit him to anything stronger than the 
standard Stoic view on wealth represented by, among others, Posidonius 
(see 87.31-3). 

'natural desires'. An Epicurean point. See above. 

119. 13-14 The quotation is from Horace Satires 1.2.114-16. Like 
Seneca's, Horace's critical engagement with conventional wealth is com- 
patible with both Epicurean and Stoic philosophy. The linkage between 
social display and superfluity is underlined by the observation that true 
hunger is not ambitious, a word which points to one of the major risks 
that flows from taking conventional values seriously. Ambition stands for 
the corrupting effect of social influences; without a moral counterweight, 
people will be drawn into the value system of their fellows and ambitious 
rivalry is one way in which that happens. 

119. 15-16 'fussiness' translates the word fastidium. An important point 
underlies this section. The ability to choose among indifferents is not a 
bad thing. Yet here, Seneca emphasizes that a commitment to fulfiling 
unnecessary desires leads to an excessive preoccupation with the wrong 
kind of choices and the fetishization of minor, socially distorted distinc- 
tions. The psychological risks of taking conventional values seriously are 
reflected in the language of 'fussiness' and 'pampering' used here. Seneca, 
like Chrysippus, regards the ultimate source of confusion in our values 
as being a combination of 'the persuasiveness of external activities and 
instruction from our companions' (D.L. 7.89; cf 94.53). To counteract 
these influences Seneca is deliberately neglecting a point he elsewhere 
recognizes, the restricted but real value of preferred indifferents. 

'builder of the cosmos . . . laws of living'. This reference to the providential 
plan of the world and its normative foundation in 'laws' about how one 
should live is a reminder of Seneca's ultimate commitment to the Stoic 
rather than the Epicurean version of the central argument of this letter. 

'necessity'. See above on the relation between natural and the necessary 


Commentary on 120 

Thematic division 

1 -3: The quaestio stated. The nature of good and how to acquire 

4-5: Analogy as the principal means to acquire the notion of the 

6-7: Two exempla: Fabricius and Horatius. 

8-9: The focussing effect of contrary cases. 
10- 1 1: The importance of consistency in a good man's behaviour. 
12-14: The good man's attitude to fortune. 
15-18: His attitude to bodily misfortunes and limitations. 
19-22: The central importance of consistency. 

120. 1 'many minor questions' {quaestiunculae). This diminutive form of 
quaestio is used six times in Seneca's works. At 49.8 it is used in a pejorative 
way (as diminutives often are), but the context is restricted to sophisms; 
similarly, the negative connotations at 11 1.2 derive from the context and 
topic (sophisms and the best translation for the Greek term sophisma). At 
Ben. 6.12.1, though, there is no hint of criticism and the same seems to 
be the case at 121. 1. At 117. 1 the quaestiuncula poses a risk to Seneca, as 
it may force him to choose between his own considered judgement and 
school loyalty. That, however, does not make the quaestio philosophically 
improper. The term in its own right is not, then, a negative one. 117, 
120, 121 are linked by their reference to Lucilius posing quaestiones and 
expecting expository replies from Seneca. Leeman argues (1951, 1953) 
that this pattern is connected to Seneca's projected treatise on moral 
philosophy of which, however, few traces survive and none which confirm 
Seneca's own description of his ambitions for the work; see on 106.2-3. 
Whatever the nature of that work, it clearly functions as a literary pretext 
for the writing of more technical letters than would otherwise be acceptable 
in the epistolary genre, allowing Seneca to pursue themes of independent 
interest to himself and his presumed audience. For the delicate balance 
between letters and treatises, which permit more technical discussion, see 
also 81.3 in relation to the De Beneficiis. In the case of Ben., however, the 
treatise was already written (at least the first four books — see Ben. 5.1) 
and the letter follows up on its themes. In the present case, we are asked 
to suppose that Seneca wrote the letters in advance of the treatise as a kind 
of sketch for the more technical work. 

LETTER 120 323 

The issue to be discussed in this letter is stated brusquely: the origin of 
the concept of the good and the honourable. The relation of the good and 
the honourable had been dealt with recently, in 118.9-11. There Seneca 
presents the honourable as the cause of good things being good, but this 
asymmetry is only possible because he restricts himself to a narrowly Stoic 
understanding of 'honourable' and permits himself both a broad and a 
narrowly Stoic interpretation of 'good'. Here he holds simply that there 
is an intensional but not an extensional difference between them. This 
is normal Stoic doctrine (see on 118.10-11) and so forms an interesting 
contrast to 118. 

120. 1 'different ... distinct'. The contrast is between the Latin words 
diversa and divisa. The 'good' (bonum) and the 'honourable' (honestum) are 
treated differently by Stoics ('in our view' here, 'we contend' in 120.3) 
and by their opponents. Stoics, according to Seneca, regard the good and 
honourable as derived from a single source yet still distinct ('these are 
indeed two things, but that they are rooted in one' 120.3) while their 
opponents think that there are good things which are not honourable, and 
hence that the difference between them is much greater than the Stoics 

120.2 'responsibility' translates officium, a term which since Cicero has 
been the normal Latin translation of kathekon. 'correct' translates rectum, 
the usual translation for orthon and a marker for actions done virtuously. 

120.3 The factor distinguishing between the good and the honourable is 
not stated here; the reference may be to 118.9-11. 

120.2-3 Clarification of what the good is in the narrow sense in which 
it is co-extensive with the honourable and does not extend to things that 
are 'usefuP in the widest possible sense). The key move here is to invoke 
the Socratic 'use' argument — the useful is a rough approximation of the 
good, but only if the useful is such that it cannot be used badly. See on 
66.41 and CHHP, 687-90; also Meno 88de, D.L. 7.103. That, again, is 
familiar Stoic doctrine and is dealt with quickly. 

'cheap ... vulgarity'. Typically abusive language applied to those who 
retain the broad notion of 'good' basing it on an unrefmed conception 
of usefulness — one not constrained by the Socratic requirement that the 
useful be that which is immune to misuse. 


120.3 The main question is then restated. For the essential background 
in Greek Stoicism, see D.L. 7.52-3, Aétius 4.11.1-5, S. E. M. 8.56-9, 
Fin. 3.20-5, 33-4 (see Frede 1999 and 'Getting to Goodness', ch. 10 of 
Inwood 2005). 

'primary concept'. The sense of 'primary' is both temporal and logicai. 

120.4 'nature could not have taught us'. Compare 90.44-6, 108.8. D.L. 
7.89 notes that nature gives humans uncorrupted inclinations {aphormai) 
to virtue; these inclinations and the preconceptions which we develop 
naturally are among the 'seeds' referred to here. Chance is ruled out as 
a possible source of our concept of the good. Pohlenz (1940: 86) takes 
this passage to refer simply to grasping a concept by direct experience 
{kata periptosin, see D.L. 7.52-3); he relied on the occurrence here of 
'happening on' (incidisse). But the presence of casu 'by chance' in the next 
sentence makes this very unlikely. 

120.4 The argument is by elimination: we acquire the concept by nature, 
by chance, or by learning from observation. The first two are ruled out 
and the third turns out to be a form of concept acquisition structured by 
what he calls 'analogy' (analogia, a Greek term). Seneca is ready to accept 
a foreign term when it is useful. The term was well established in the 
context of grammatical theory (Caesar and Varro). On analogia see also 
Marastoni 1979, whose interest is primarily in the rhetorical tradition. 

120.5 Seneca takes for granted that we already have some grasp of the 
concept 'good' and that it has come to us from 'analogicaP reflection on our 
experience. Hence the past tenses here (which I translate literally) refer to 
prior observational experience. Although analogy is part of the standard 
Stoic language of concept formation, it seems not to be used in the same 
sense here as in the principal doxographical texts. The body-soul analogy 
as applied to health and strength goes back at least to Plato (Republic 4) 
and is also well attested in earlier Stoicism (see on 85.4). 

120.5 'hidden ... failings ... exaggerate'. Evidently we derive our con- 
ception of moral perfection from our experience of admirable deeds. Yet, 
in accordance with conventional Stoic theory, Seneca recognizes that 
virtually no observed aet is actually virtuous in the narrow Stoic sense of 
the term. Hence there must be a kind of extrapolation from 'good' deeds 
to perfection. Treating such deeds 'as though they were perfect' involves 

LETTER 120 325 

a form of self-deception: 'these failings we pretended not to notice.' This 
seems a weak empiricai foundation for a concept as important as this and 
one inevitably wonders whether conventional Stoic theory can justify its 
claim that experience of the world of imperfect moral agents can generate 
by analogy a veridical conception of the good. 

Hence it is important to note Seneca's claim that our extrapolation is 
justified by Nature (who orders us to exaggerate) and by the faet that 
everyone does so. To the extent that Stoics wish to claim a naturalistic 
origin for the concept of the good, based on actual experience of a world 
which (alas) has few or no virtuous agents, this seems a contentious 
(indeed, a dubious) claim. 

120.6-7 Fabricius and Horatius Cocles are offered as examples of men 
whose admirable deeds instigate our concept of virtue. They are not, of 
course, truly virtuous, however fine their deeds might be. As Seneca says in 
120.8, they 'have shown us the likeness of virtue' rather than the real thing. 
As exemplars of virtue they fail not just in being imperfect (and so not 
really virtuous) but also in being historical characters, known to Seneca's 
audience through tradition rather than through direct experience. The 
standing of these and other such heroes of tradition in Seneca's culture 
is perhaps an important part of his argument. Since he is willing to give 
considerable weight to the widely held views of his fellow men (see 117.6), 
he may be suggesting that the uniform narrative tradition of a culture has a 
special role to play in providing the raw material for the kind of analogical 
reasoning which generates our conception of virtue. How, we might ask, 
could it possibly be veridical? What weight could such examples and 
the concept derived from them have with people from different cultural 

120.6 'avoided riches just as he avoided poison'. A cleverly condensed 
expression. Fabricius (see also 98.13), was a Roman general in the wars 
against the Macedonian king Pyrrhus (280-279 bc); he avoided riches 
by not taking the bribe from Pyrrhus; he avoided poison by not agreeing 
to win by having Pyrrhus poisoned. The sole similarity between the two 
acts of avoidance is that resort to either would have been dishonourable, 
but Seneca's phrasing makes it sound as though these were two equally 
dishonourable means to the same end. Cicero used the story of Pyrrhus 
and Fabricius at Paradoxa Stoicorum 48 and in the De Officiis (1.40, 
3.86-7). The issue of wealth links this letter to 119 and 87. 


'blameless during war'. Fabricius is perhaps being compared tacitly to 
Cato the Younger (below 120.19), as suggested in the Bude edition ad loc. 

120.7 'Horatius Cocles'. Seneca may have in mind the version of his 
story told by Livy at 2.10; Cic. Leg. 2.10 cites him as an instance of virtuous 
behaviour which is commanded by divine law rather than by human law. 
Cf. Off. 1.61; Parad. 12 (where he is cited together with Fabricius, as 
here); Manilius, Astronomica 4.31. 

120.8-9 The similarity of vice to virtue helps us to learn what true virtue 
is like, if only because the close but ultimately disappointing resemblance 
to virtue forces the reflective observer to concentrate and analyze. The 
attempt to isolate what is missing in such defective States of character 
is supposed to enable us to discern the truly good man (120.10), who 
is then analyzed (120. 11) to yield concepts of the various virtues. The 
failings of the various non- virtuous agents alluded to here are prodigality, 
of which carelessness may well be the genus, and recklessness, which 
masquerades as courage. Each of these is arguably a failure in knowing 
how to use a natural advantage (money and natural spirit). Although 
Seneca does not allude to it here, it is easy to see how application of 
the Socratic 'use argument' would help to distinguish pseudo-virtues 
from genuine virtues. In 120.9, however, the principal failing is clearly 
inconsistency: the imperfect agent does something fine, but only once, 
or repeatedly displays a good trait in one area of life but fails to show 
it in others. Since on any version of Stoicism the virtues are a unity 
(either they are inter-entailing character traits or they are really just 
one trait manifested in different circumstances), such inconsistency and 
incompleteness is a proof that the agent of the admirable action is not 
genuinely virtuous. 

On the similarity of vice to virtue, compare 45.7 on false friendship. 
At 95.43 Seneca points out that the same overt deeds can be virtuous 
or vicious depending on the disposition of the agent. At De Clementia 
1. 3. 1 Seneca holds that a clear grasp of the nature of a virtue is needed 
to distinguish virtues from their similar vices. The similarity of virtues 
and vices is a point frequently made in the rhetorical tradition: Cicero, De 
Inventione 2.165 an d Quintilian, Inst. 2.12.4. 

120.9 'start to notice'. I follow the text of Reynolds, which is closer to 
the mss and clearly defensible. Noting that some of the oldest mss omit 
coepimus ('we start') Geertz adds ae ('and') before dum. 

LETTER 120 327 

120.10 In contrast to the agents imagined in 120.8-9, Seneca now 
invokes a moral paragon. The man envisaged here is very like the one 
sketched at 41.4-8 and 120. 10-19 bears close comparison with that 
text. Wildberger (2003: 60) suggests that Seneca may have been the first 
to contribute to the Stoic tradition the idea that experience of such a 
perfected human is a source of conceptual inspiration for ordinary people. 
See especially 41.4: 

If you see a person not frightened by dangers, untouched by desires, cheerful in 
difficult circumstances, calm amidst the storms, looking at human beings from a 
higher place and upon the gods from their own level — will you not be in awe of 
such a man? Will you not say, 'This is a thing so great and lofty that one cannot 
believe it is similar to the paltry body it inhabits?' 

On the role of the wise person as moral exemplar and its connection to 
historical tradition, see Sellars 2003: 62-3. 

In 41.5 Seneca says that a divine power 'descends' into such a person, 
and this is quite likely an idea of Piatonic origin. See below on 120. 14-15. 

120. 1 1 The four-part division of virtue goes back at least to Plato, 
Republic 4. Compare Cic. Off. 1.15. Here Seneca seems not only to be 
committed to the unity of virtues, but also treats virtue as something 
which we first grasp in its unity and only then divide into the conventional 
parts. If the central feature of virtue is the harmony and consistency of 
the agent this makes more sense. Hence I think this discussion supports 
the idea that Seneca is most sympathetic to an Aristonian conception of 

'happy life which flows smoothly'. This is an allusion to the 'smooth flow 
of life' which characterizes happiness: see D.L. 7.88 and Tranq. An. 2.4. 

The wording of Seneca's description of consistency here is very like 
that used by Cicero at Fin. 3.21. (See also I. Hadot 1969: 137, Pohlenz 
1940: 87.) I have no doubt that this is a deliberate reference to Cicero by 
Seneca. See 'Getting to Goodness', ch. 10 of Inwood 2005), n. 21. 

'autonomous' translates arbitrii sui; its literal sense is 'characterized by its 
own judgement' or 'with the authority to form its own judgement.' 

120. 12-15 Seneca asks about how we came to know 'this very thing'. 
But which thing does he have in mind? Either the happy life of 120. 11 
or the notion of the good and honourable, which has been the subject of 


the whole letter. The former reference is more natural in the immediate 
context, the latter more reasonable in the context of the letter as a whole. 
In any case, the two will converge as the former ultimately consists in 
the possession of the good and the honourable. Either way, the source of 
our insight is a moral paragon, here described in terms which emphasize 
his attitude towards cosmic inevitabilities, his sense of mission (cast in 
military language reminiscent of the Phaedo 62b), his godlike perfection 
and role as an inspiration to others ('like a light in the darkness' 120.13), 
and his awareness of how his life is a temporary sojourn in a foreign 
environment. The tenor of this description is reminiscent of many aspects 
of Platonism. 

120.12 'as though commanded'. Compare Seneca's remarks about the 
'law of life' at 90.34 and 'Natural Law in Seneca', ch. 8 of Inwood 2005. 
The metaphor of military command is used to describe Sextius' distinctive 
philosophical approach at 59.7: he philosophized in a culturally Roman 
way (Romanis moribus). See also 65.18 and 120.18. 

120.13 'like a light in the darkness' For the image compare 92.18, 93.5, 
Ben. 4.17.4. 

120. 14-15 'mind of god ... human heart . . . comes from some loftier 
place'. Since the human mind when perfected is the same as that of Zeus, 
Seneca's adoption of the apparently Piatonic image of a god within does 
not conflict with his Stoicism (on which see Long 2002: 1 63 - 8 and 1 77 - 8); 
however, the idea of god descending in to a human or that the divine is the 
origin for human reason might conflict if the claim is that some distinct 
divine substance enters into a human mind to make it divine, rather than 
that the individual human mind can become divine by perfecting itself. 
For other uses of this idea see 41.5, 65.16, 102.27, 79.12. Passages such as 
92.30, 93.10, 120.18, and NQ_ 1 pref. 13-17 and 6.32.6 are less in conflict 
with the tenor of Stoic thinking. See Rist 1989: 2003, who attributes the 
Piatonic turn here to both Posidonius and Plato. 

120.14 'live and be done with life' translates vita defungeretur. There 
is only one verb in Latin and it puts the emphasis on being done with 
something; however, it also expresses the idea that the job or task is first 
accomplished. defuncti are those who have lived out their lives, not those 
who have died with nothing done. 

LETTER 120 329 

'guest-house' and 120. 15-16 'foreign environment'. Compare 58.22-37, 
70.16-17, 79.12, 102.24. See too the discussion at 121. 16. 

120. 14-18 Seneca continues his focus on the moral paragon who is the 
source of our conception of the good and the honourable. His attitude 
of detachment from the body is justified by the transitory and unstable 
nature of those bodies, which stands in sharp contrast to the long-lasting 
commitments our mind makes when it is at its best. Hence an attachment 
to the body conflicts with an appreciation of our commitment to improve 
our characters and temperaments. 

It is important to emphasize that the moral paragon remains unnamed 
throughout the letter. This is appropriate if it is the characteristics 
rather than the unique individual which contribute crucially to the 
epistemological claims Seneca makes. Nevertheless, it is easy to suspect 
that Seneca has Socrates or some other unique historical figure in mind 
(although there cannot be too many candidates for this role given the 
rarity of sages). For further discussion, see 'Getting to Goodness', ch. 10 
of Inwood 2005. 

120.16 'chest troubles'. Complaints about chest (pectus) and throat 
suggest respiratory illness. Seneca was probably tubercular in his youth 
(78.1-4 and Griffin 1992: 42-3) and seems never to have regained his 
health completely. The 'mortal breast' of 120.14 (into which a divine 
principle has descended) is another translation of pectus mortale; Seneca 
pointedly refers to physical illness in the same part of the body which is 
the primary host to the divine element in us. 

120.17 'crumbling body'. See above on 120.14; human fragility is a fre- 
quentthemein Seneca, e.g. 91.16, 101.1, NQ_ 6.2.3 etc. Awareness of these 
mundane physical indications of our bodily imperfection is presumably so 
widespread that all men are assumed to be aware of it and so to have access 
to another source for reflection which leads to a strong conception of the 
good. Given the stability and reliability of the good and the defects of the 
body, anyone ought to be able to see that the good is a feature of the mind 
rather than the body. (In Fin. 4-5 the contrast between Peripatetic and 
Stoic ethics turns in part on the claim that Stoics focus only on the mind 
whereas Peripatetics take account of both mind and body. Seneca seems to 
be embracing this characterization of Stoicism.) Seneca here suggests that 
our misguided attachment to the body is a kind of greed ('nothing satisfies 


those who are about to die'). For the lex mortalitatis and its similarity to 
themes in Epicureanism, see 'Natural Law in Seneca', ch. 8 of Inwood 
2005. See especially 101.7-8 and the striking phrase which captures this 
thought with Senecan succinctness: cupiditas futuri exedens animum. 

120.18 'in the same place... '. For the preoccupation with time and 
mortality see, e.g., Ker 2002 and 122. See in particular 77.11 on the 
symmetry of time past and time to come. The Consolation for Polybius 
9.2 and Consolation for Marcia 19.5 present the idea with a slightly more 
Epicurean ring (for which see Lucretius 3.830, 836, 838 ff), but there is 
clearly a consolatory cliché at work here. For the idea that our death gets 
closer every day see especially 1.2, 24.20, 26.4. 

'surroundings' in contrast to our selves, see the verbally similar 41.7, 
102.24, Cons. Marc. 10. 1, De Vita Beata 20.3. 

120.19-22 The letter's conclusion focusses on consistency of character, 
which Seneca has isolated as the most important source for our conception 
of the good. There is a Piatonic (indeed, Parmenidean) tinge to the claim 
in 120.19 that 'what is not genuine does not last'. Compare the similar 
theme at the conclusion of 79. But Seneca makes a rapid transition from 
the emphasis on the consistency of an ideal character to a critique of 
rapid changes of behaviour and disposition by more ordinary people. 
It is these inconsistent people, one should recall, who help us to grasp 
the importance of consistency in the concept of goodness. See 120.8-9 
and comment above. The preoccupations of the inconsistent characters 
pilloried here are things like money, food, luxuries, and so forth. It is 
tempting to suppose that Seneca has in mind the view (see above) that 
a kind of detachment from preferred indifferents and bodily advantages 
is a necessary condition for the kind of consistency associated with 

120.19 The characters surveyed here may be briefly identified. 

Vatinius, Cato. See also 118.4. 

Curius, Marcus Curius Dentatus. An early Roman general with a 
reputation for probity. 

Fabricius. See above. 

LETTER 120 33 1 

Tubero. See also 95.72 

Crassus, Licinus. See also 119.9. 

Apicius. A notorious gourmand. See also 95.42, Cons. Helv. 10.8- 10. 

Maecenas. The friend and adviser of Augustus, whose gardens became a 
byword for conspicuous luxury. Seneca admires his eloquence but thinks 
that prosperity was his downfall. See 19.9, 92.35, 114. Also discussed 
at 101. 10-15. 

120.20 'proof of a bad character'. For the significance of variable habits, 
see also 20.3, Tranq. An. 2.10. 

'often he had ... '. The quotation is from Horace's Satires 1.3.11-17. 
The Satires are often regarded as source of generic inspiration for Seneca 
(see Introduction, n, 12) and Seneca here is adopting the almost strident 
voice of the satirist. Little comment is needed on the details of the 'rant' 
developed in 120.21. In 120.22 Seneca re-emphasizes the epistemological 
importance of the observation of such moral failings (see on 120.8-9): 
the inconsistent behaviour is a 'proof of bad character (here the verb 
coarguitur, at 120.20 indicium are translated as 'proof). The faet that 
only a wise person can be fully consistent is also the point made in a 
more Piatonic voice in the middle part of this letter and it should be 
emphasized that essentially the same point is made here in the more 
sober tones of a satirist and social observer. At the opening of the letter 
Seneca commits himself to the view that there are empiricai sources for 
our conception of a kind of goodness which verges on being transcendent 
and it might be tempting to suppose that the Piatonic coloration of the 
middle section negates that initial empiricai spirit. At the end of the 
letter, though, it again becomes clear that the epistemological foundations 
of our notion of goodness can also be extracted from ordinary social 
experience by someone with a suitably trained critical temperament and 
a commitment to the notion that consistency is of particular importance. 
The role played in this epistemological process by our awareness of the 
moral paragon is a matter for speculation, but the structure and cohesion 
of the letter strongly suggest that an awareness of such a moral ideal, 
whether obtained from direct observation or from narrative tradition, is 
necessary for the analysis of experience which leads to a conception of the 
good. For more discussion, see 'Getting to Goodness', ch. 10 of Inwood 


120.22 'role of one person ... single role ... multiple'. The idea that a 
moral agent plays roles can beused in different ways. At D.L. 7.160 Aristo 
of Chios is said to have compared the wise person to an actor who can play 
different roles (Thersites or Agamemnon) well. That is, the wise person 
can behave wisely in any circumstances which fortime might assign. Here 
Seneca uses the metaphor in the opposite sense: the wise person plays 
a single, consistent role (that of the sage) whereas the non-wise play 
many roles, that is, they exhibit instability as they shift from one set of 
commitments to another. 

Commentary on 121 

This is one of the most discussed of Seneca's letters, for it is one of our 
best sources for the Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis and features in virtually 
every discussion of that topic or of the foundations of Stoic moral theory. 
As befits this volume, I will focus my commentary on the letter itself 
in the context of Seneca's own philosophical project. In preparing this 
commentary I am particularly indebted to the students in my seminar on 
Seneca's letters in the fall of 2002, and especially to Gur Zak. 
Some basic reading for this topic: 

Primary: Cicero, Fin. 3.16-34; 3.62-3; Off.1.12; AM). 2. 33-6, 121-30; 
D. L. 7.85-9; Hierocles, Ethike Stoicheiosis (Pberol inv. 9780V) in Corpus 
dei papiri filosofici greci e latini Li** (Firenze MCMXCII), 268 fif. (this 
includes a thorough bibliography); LS 57 with commentary. Secondary: 
Brunschwig 1986; Inwood 1984 and 1983; Long 1996: chs. 11 ('Hierocles 
on oikeiosis and self-perception') and 12 ('Representation and the self in 
Stoicism'); Pembroke 1971. 

Thematic division 

1 -4: Introduction. Topics with direct and indirect bearing on 

the improvement of character. 
5-6: Animals have innate self-perception. 
7-9: It is not pain avoidance which explains the behaviour of 
newborn animals. 
10-13: An inarticulate grasp of our own nature suffices to explain 

14-16: Our constitution develops and changes over time, but our 
attachment to it is constant. 

LETTER 121 333 

17-18: The concern for self-preservation is fundamental and 

19-20: Evidence that animals have the necessary innate knowl- 
21: How knowledge of one's own nature leads to knowledge of 
22-3: The spider's web example. 

24: A teleological consideration. Conclusion. 

121. 1-4 This letter is closely connected to 120; among other things, 
both announce that they deal with a quaestiuncula (compare also 124. 1 
where quaeritur indicates that it too is a form of quaestio). See commentary 
on 120. 1 for further connections indicated by this theme. In 117 and 
120 Lucilius is presented as posing the question, but here Seneca is 
responsible for the technical theme and anticipates Lucilius' objections on 
the grounds of irrelevance to ethics. The faet that Lucilius is presented 
as both requesting and objecting to technical philosophical discussion 
should not be a surprise. Seneca, as an author, is quite comfortable 
having his characters take on the role needed for a particular theme. But 
this should not be regarded as failure of dramatic verisimilitude. Why 
should a philosophically inclined friend not waver between the desire for 
immediately applicable ethical discussion and more demanding technical 
philosophy for its own sake? Both interests seem plausible and often 
cohabit within a single philosophical temperament. There is, at any rate, 
a slight sense of artificiality in prefacing this letter with a concern about 
its relevance to ethics, as its theme is manifestly of central concern to 
ethical theory. The raising of this issue does allow Seneca, in 121. 1—4, 
using an aggressively defensive tone, to articulate the relevance to ethics 
of grasping human nature in the context of other species and nature as 
a whole and to differentiate this kind of discussion from simple moral 
exhortation for which he admits he has an excessive predilection (121. 4 
'some might judge me excessive and immoderate in this area'). 

121. 1 'haul me into court'. Tropes drawn from legal practice are common 
in Seneca. See, for example, 65.2. 

'Posidonius and Archedemus'. Seneca gives the latter name in the form 
Archidemus, but there is little doubt that he is referring to Archedemus 
of Tarsus, evidence for whom is collected at SVF 3.262-4. He was an 
authoritative and technical Stoic author often paired with Chrysippus. As 


Posidonius was associated with the Stoic school on Rhodes, Archedemus 
apparently founded a Stoic school at Babylon (Plu. On Exile 605b). 
Archedemus seems to have been an older contemporary of Posidonius 
(Archedemus fl. late second century bc or early first century bc and 
PosidoniusT?. mid first century bc). 

Invoking the precedent of reputable Stoic writers and teachers, Seneca 
justifies what might look like a physical investigation on the grounds that it 
has a distinct bearing on ethics. That this is in faet the case is confirmed by 
the way the theme oioikeiosis is treated by Cicero in Fin. 3, its place in the 
doxography of D.L. 7 (85 ff) and its important role in Hierocles' Principles 
of Ethics (Ethike Stoicheiosis). Seneca's insistence that there are themes 
within ethics that do not contribute directly to character improvement is 
unsurprising within the school and is reflected in Seneca's own attitude 
in other letters, although he also expresses contempt for unproductive 
technicality when he deems it appropriate to do so. 

121. 2-3 Examples of ethically relevant topics which do not contribute 
directly to moral improvement. Nutrition, exercise, clothing, teaching, 
pleasure are the first set of examples. Although the first two are put to 
work in (for example) Plato's normative description of a good upbringing 
in the Republic, they have only indirect bearing on moral improvement. 
The third can be addressed from the point of view of luxury and excess, 
if it is meant to address the question of clothing styles, or from the point 
of view of the simplicity of the life according to nature interpreted in a 
Cynic manner. Issues of teaching and pleasure can contribute directly to 
moral improvement. 

Seneca further maintains that there is a role for a theoretical investigation 
of the nature and origin of human character. The practical contribution of 
such investigations to moral improvement would come from establishing 
which features of our character are fixed by nature and which are 
malleable and what our natural inclinations are. The facts about human 
nature (especially in relationship to the natures of gods and of animals) and 
our own individual natures set norms and establish constraints relevant to 
moral deliberation; this is embodied in the theory of personae associated 
with Panaetius but also well known in the Latin philosophical tradition 
(see Cicero, Off. 1. 105- 16). 

'You won't really understand what you should do and what you should 
avoid until you have learned what you owe to your own nature.' If our 
individual nature and our nature as a human (either could be meant by 

LETTER 121 335 

the phrase naturae tuae) establish norms and constraints for deliberation, 
then self-knowledge (knowledge of that nature) is obviously indispensable 
to proper deliberation. 

121. 4 Seneca points out that he is normally quite vigorous in the practice 
of direct moral exhortation so that perhaps Lucilius should be more patient 
with the occasional theoretical excursus. Modern readers whose interests 
are primarily philosophical will sympathize with the thought that Seneca 
might well be considered excessive in his zeal for direct moral exhortation. 

i2i. 5— 9 This argument regards the parts and organs of our bodies as 
tools comparable to the tools used by a craftsman — that is the basis for the 
argument, the suppressed premiss being that as craftsmen have awareness 
of their tools in order to use them well so do animals have awareness of 
their 'tools'. For the idea that our bodies are, as it were, tools used by 
the soul/mind, see Plato, Alcibiades I, 129-30. The idea is the common 
property of Piatonic and Stoic theories of human nature. 

121. 5 'We were investigating ... '. Dramatic verisimilitude again. We 
hear nothing about the setting of this previous discussion nor of the 
participants; Lucilius is presumed to know. The question under discussion 
then and now in this letter is whether animals have awareness of their 
own constitution. The pertinence of this to moral improvement may seem 
indirect, but it is central to understanding human nature, which in the 
relevant respect is merely a special case of animal nature. Hence human 
beings enter into his discussion of 'all animals' quite naturally. 

The occurrence of constitution {constitutio) in the formulation of the 
question is important. In Cicero the issue is put in terms of sensus sui. 
Similarly Hierocles writes of aisthesis heautou. But in D.L. 7.85 we find a 
term for which Seneca's constitutio is an exact counterpart: sustasis. Two 
important points emerge. Seneca is here rendering a technical term from 
the Greek with full respect for its etymology — which he does not normally 
choose to do (see 'Seneca in his Philosophical Milieu', ch. 1 of Inwood 
2005); even though it produces a completely reasonable Latin term which 
is not a neologism, it is still a calque translation. Moreover, as becomes 
explicit below, 'constitution' is meant as an explication of the term '-self, 
where the reflexive pronoun seems to be the forerunner of our substantive 
term 'self which is often the subject of philosophical investigation in its 
own right. Here, however, it would be a mistake to assume that 'self 
in our modern philosophical sense (indicating a particular emphasis on 


reflexivity or subjectivity) is the main theme of discussion; rather, the 
constitution of an animal is just the animal in its basic nature — as is 
indicated by the inter-substitutability of 'self and 'constitution' in Stoic 
texts. See also 'Seneca and Self-Assertion', ch. 12 of Inwood 2005. 

121. 5— 6 The principal argument that animals do have a sense of their 
own constitution is the observation that their skiils are on a par with 
those which humans acquire by way of training and practice and which 
presumably require an awareness of our capabilities, body position, etc. 
We are to suppose, it seems, that the quasi-craftsmanlike behaviour of 
animals is evidence for their possession of self-perception. (See also 121. 9 
where this point is summarized.) Nature plays the role of a 'teacher' 
of these quasi-skills (note 'they are born fully trained'). Since genuine 
skilis in humans involve a substantial cognitive component (we have to 
know about our tools in order to use them well) it seems to follow that 
animals must have a corresponding cognitive condition which underlies 
their quasi-skills — they must know their own constitutions. 

121. 6 'dancers'. Pantomime artists, apparently. 

121.7-8 The presumably Epicurean opponent offers an argument sim- 
ilar to that rebutted at D.L. 7.85-6, which is that the order ly and 
apparently goal-directed behaviour of animals (their use of quasi-skills) 
can be explained more simply by invoking their tendency to avoid pain. 
This is dismissed by Seneca for two reasons. First, many natural motions 
are performed with alacrity, whereas actions motivated by avoidance are 
characterized by reluctance. It is, unfortunately, easy to think of counter- 
examples to this claim, but one could easily develop an analogous argument 
which relies on the claim that the complexity of the animal actions goes 
beyond what might be thought necessary merely to avoid pain. Second, 
Seneca invokes observations which conflict with his opponent's explana- 
tion. Pain avoidance is an implausible explanation of cases like that of a 
young child learning to walk: it is a natural behaviour pattern that involves 
discomfort and so is hard to explain by invoking pain avoidance rather 
than by hypothesizing a natural grasp of what our legs are for and how to 
use them. The example of the turtle is less decisive, since it requires that 
we know that a turtle when turned over is not in pain and so that its desire 
to right itself reflects nothing more than a desire to get its limbs back 
to their natural orientation (which it knows by nature). The opponent's 
position could be made more plausible by supposing that the pain to be 

LETTER 121 337 

avoided by the turtle or the baby is the pain of hunger, that the desire to 
achieve effective mobility is dictated by the need to get food. But if that is 
so, then the means to achieving that end also presuppose an awareness of 
one's own natural abilities. 

We note here that pre-rational humans and non-rational animals are 
grouped together as examples of merely natural behaviour free of cultural 
or other artificial influences. 

121. 10 The definition of 'constitution' is 'the mind in a certain dispo- 
sition relative to the body', which Seneca seems to translate literally here 
(the Greek, if it were attested, would be hegemonikon pos echonpros to somd). 
As the objector suggests, this is a relatively arcane feature of Stoic theory. 
The objection is that this bit of theory cannot be pertinent to the question 
of how animals function since such technical philosophical concepts are 
not graspable by them — not even by ordinary Roman citizens, in faet. 
It is worth noting that the ability which the objector supposes would be 
needed to grasp this concept is dialectical skill; the concept does rely on the 
Stoic theory of categories, which plays a role in both dialectic and physics. 
The result of locating such knowledge in dialectic rather than physics is 
to make it seem even more remote, arcane, and apparently useless than 
it would appear if treated as part of physics. Seneca typically has more 
patience for the con tributions to ethics of physics than of dialectic. Thus 
the objector's decision to regard it as merely dialectical should be seen as 
a polemical move. 

'adult Romans' (togati). Seneca does not mean to suggest that Greeks 
would in faet be any better at dialectic, but his intended audience is Roman 
and he assumes this. 

i2i. ii The distinction between understanding and articulation is very 
important, not just for this problem but for Stoic epistemology more 
generally. What sort of innatism (if any) is Seneca committing himself 
to? What does it mean to claim that an animal knows that it is an 
animal but does not know what an animal is? This, presumably, is at 
least the difference between irrational perception (in this case, of oneself) 
and perception articulated in propositional form; and also the difference 
between a perceptual grasp of something (even as zprolepsis) and scientific 
or technical knowledge of it. The 'knowledge' terms are used somewhat 
loosely in this section: both 'understanding' and 'knowledge' are used 


without qualification here, but in 121. 12 the understanding at issue was 
immediately qualified as being 'crude, schematic, and vague'. 

121. 12 'what it is like or where it comes from'. Compare NQ 7.25.2, 
65.20; see I. Hadot 1969: 90. 

The 'crude, schematic, and vague' grasp of something (in this case our 
constitution) must be a form of self-perception which does not constitute 
knowledge in any strict sense. Hence the use of perceptual language in 
Cicero, D.L. and Hierocles and hence too the faet that it is common to 
all animals qua animals (thus including infants and non-rational animals). 
The foundation for his argument here is an assumption about our (adult 
human) self-awareness which is used in an analogical argument about all 
animals (qualis ... talk). The faet that adult humans can 'know' that they 
have a mind, but not know what mind is (knowing the 'that' but not 
the 'what is it'), is used to establish the legitimacy of an epistemological 
middle ground between knowledge and complete unawareness. This is 
reminiscent of 'Meno's Paradox'. In the Meno Socrates gave an account of 
this epistemological middle ground by postulating latent knowledge, the 
actualization of which could be described as an aet of recollection. The 
Stoic position adopted by Seneca here accounts for the middle ground 
by postulating inarticulate internal perception of one's own constitution. 
Rational animals can articulate this grasp through philosophical enquiry, 
while non-rational animals cannot. Both latent pre-existing knowledge 
(Plato) and an inarticulate perceptual grasp (Stoics) are provisionally 
adequate as replies to the paradox of enquiry. The Stoic theory also 
accounts economically for the behaviours discussed in this letter. The 
features of human behaviour shared with animals are explained by the 
kind of inarticulate grasp animals can share and the uniquely human 
features are explained by the additional rational capacities which we alone 

121. 12- 13 'For they must be aware of that through which they are aware 
of other things.' The argument of 121. 12 posits a parallelism between 
our awareness of our own minds (which is assumed as a premiss and 
not challenged) and animals' awareness of their constitution. Seneca now 
argues that animals also have an awareness of the leading part of their 
souls {principalis pars) and not just of their constitution more generally. 
The basis for this claim is that that through which we become aware of 
something must itself be an object of our awareness. Aristotle addresses 
a similar concern in his discussion of perceiving that we perceive (De 

LETTER 121 339 

An. 3.2). In 121. 13 Seneca again invokes the intuitions of rational humans, 
{we all understand that we have internal desiderative States that motivate 
us to aet even if we don't know what a hortrie (conatus) is in the technical 
sense invoked in Stoic psychological theory) and asserts that animal 
self-perception has a similar feature, that animals and infants have an 
inarticulate awareness of their 'leading part'. But he gives no particular 
reason to believe that non-rational animals have this feature and says 
nothing to quell the doubts of those who suspect that this cognitive 
capacity might be a distinctive feature of rationality. For all that Seneca 
says here, one might believe that an inarticulate awareness of that through 
which one has a clear awareness of an external object is a distinctive 
feature of rational perception, but that non-rational perception involves 
only awareness of the external object. It would be quite reasonable to 
hold that any level of reflexive awareness is a unique characteristic of 
rational animals. Hence the present argument is inconclusive, though it 
does reflect important theoretical commitments about the nature of animal 
perception, including its fundamental similarity to rational perception, 
and coheres with other arguments in this letter. 

121. 14 'Primary attachment', conciliatio (Cicero's Latin translation of 
the Greek term oikeiosis), as opposed to self-awareness is first introduced 
by the objector and then picked up by Seneca himself in 121. 16 and 
121. 17-18. Since the theme of the letter is awareness, the discussion of 
primary attachments which occupies the rest of this letter should be seen 
as a reinforcing argument rather than as the central theme. 

121. 14-16 In 121. 14 the imaginary interlocutor tries again to drive a 
wedge between rational animals, i.e., adult humans, and non-rational 
animals, such as infants. Seneca's reply to this objection is, again, to 
assert the similarity of rational and non-rational animals. This time, 
however, the similarity is asserted on developmental grounds: there is a 
structural continuity which persists in the development from non-rational 
to rational status (that is, during the maturation of a human being). 
(For Seneca's interest in the importance of the development of rational 
maturity, compare 120.4 on tne seeds of knowledge.) 

First, the objection. If the basic attachment which humans form is to 
a rational nature, then infants are too undeveloped to have an attachment 
to our rational constitution; the implicit conclusion is that primary 
attachment as understood by the Stoics cannot be a feature of infant 
psychology and so cannot be invoked to support the claim that infants 


have the right sort of self-awareness. And if infants do not, then it is not 
the case that all animals do. This is somewhat like the objection in 121. 10. 
Seneca's reply is to deny the basic premiss of the objector's argument, 
that all humans form their basic attachment to a distinctively human 
rational nature. His ability to do so rests on a theory of constitution 
developing over time which appears to be innovative (see also 124.10— 11 
for a parallel observation involving piants). The apparent originality of 
Seneca here should not surprise us, as the theory is advanced in reply 
to an argument found only in this letter. On Seneca's theory, then, our 
attachment to our own constitution is constant but the constitution itself 
changes over time. The constant feature in this process is a relationship: 
we are attached to our own constitution, and this attachment persists as 
the constitution itself de velops. 

121. 15 Piants also have a constitution and so provide a parallel for 
the developing constitution of animals and our consistent relationship 
to that constitution as it changes. The developmental variation of plant 
constitutions is more dramatically visible, perhaps, and the pervasiveness 
of the correlation of a constitution with the good con dition of an organism 
is reinforced by the presence of the pattern in piants as well as animals. 
There is no suggestion, though, that piants have self-perception (or indeed 
any form of perception). Relevant similarities between animals and piants 
play a role in the Stoic argument for the naturalness of certain patterns of 
behaviour (see D.L. 7.86), but this does not commit Seneca to the view 
that piants have a soul rather than nphusis (the normal Stoic view) — which 
would be the case if they had any form of perception. See also 58.10; 
124.10-11, 124.18 employ the idea of a natural 'good' for piants at various 
stages of development as a parallel to the situation with animals. Since 
oikeiosis requires a form of perception, it is only found among animals and 
not among piants. 

121. 16 'commend' for commendare, also a Ciceronian term for an aspect 
of oikeiosis (see, e.g., Fin. 3.23, 4.19). 

121. 16 'Yet I am the same human as was also a baby and a boy and a 
teenager.' This follows up on the claim of 121. 15 that 'there is a constitu- 
tion for every stage of life.' Here Seneca articulates a view of the continuity 
of a person over time which follows necessarily from his theory of evolving 
constitutions. It is vital for the coherence of his theory that there be in each 

LETTER 121 34 1 

human being a continuous something distinct from the varying constitu- 
tion; indeed, it is the emphasis on Seneca's variation of the constitution 
over a lifespan which preserves the intuitive idea of the unity of a human 
life. Note that the attachment is always to the constitution, while the 'me' 
is what nature commends me to. Seneca seems to have the resources to 
distinguish between a core 'self and the varying constitution, but this 
seems not to be his interest and the distinction is not developed. Rather, 
Seneca's argument about self-perception demands that there be a variation 
in our nature over the course of development and the stability of the 'me' 
seems to be little more than the necessary condition for this variation. 

It might well be asked (as it was, most forcefully, by Gur Zak) whether 
this view of continuous human identity is compatible with the emphasis 
on the fluidity and lability of our identity in 58, especially as expressed in 
58.22: 'None of us is the same in old age as in youth. None of us is the 
same the next day as he was the day before.' (Cf 24.19-21.) Although the 
Heraclitean mutability of human beings predominates in 58, even there 
Seneca emphasizes our ability to take action as agents against the instability 
of our mere bodily existence. We can prolong our life through personal 
regimen, discipline ourselves to improve the quality and character of that 
life, and ultimately preserve the integrity of our life by being prepared 
to part company with the body. Although the concerns of 58 and 121 
are quite different, and 58 is certainly more focussed on the instability in 
human life produced by our corporeal nature, there is room for common 
ground. We do change from day to day (and between stages of life), yet 
despite that the relationship between our planning capacity and our more 
obviously vulnerable body is a constant. Seneca's concern to maintain 
rational control over that relationship is the key both to the emphasis here 
on continuity of personhood and to his readiness to embrace suicide in 58 
in order to preserve full agency. In 58.35-6 Seneca emphasizes that mere 
bodily fragility and decay do not warrant suicide, but loss of the ability to 
plan our lives and decide about the disposition of one's own body does. 
Note that in 58.34 it is precisely the prospect of being unable to make 
an efficacious decision about one's bodily existence that Seneca describes 
as the cruellest loss in a human life. This asymmetricai relationship of 
mind to body is evident in the claim that 'the constitution is the leading 
part of the soul in a certain disposition relative to the body.' It is this 
relationship to which we are attached as long as it exists. In 58 suicide 
is indicated when either the mind or the body loses the capacity to play 
the appropriate role in this relationship. Similarly, in 120. 14-18 Seneca 
emphasizes the asymmetry of mind and body with respect to vulnerability; 


in 120.16 Seneca even says that, as embodied creatures, we are living in a 
foreign environment, which might seem to reflect a non-Stoic idea of the 
alienation of mind from body. Despite the hyperbolic expression, I do not 
think Seneca has embraced anything fundamentally non-Stoic, though 
he is certainly open to Piatonic influence. As in 120, Seneca's principal 
concern is to establish that it is the mind rather than the body which sets 
the agenda and determines the values for a human life. 

121. 17 At D.L. 7.85-6 there are Stoic arguments that our primary 
attachment is not to pleasure or any other external motivation, but rather 
to oneself (i.e., one's then current constitution). So too here. Seneca's 
argument is that since benefit and concern are self-referential, any concern 
for any other benefit or value entails concern for the self; even a hedonist 
has to admit that there is an even more fundamental concern with self, 
since it is for oneself that pleasure is sought. The naturalness of this self- 
directed behaviour is underlined by its universality in nature (whereas 
other behaviour patterns are instinctive but species-specific; see 76.8, 
104.23, 124.23). What is distinctive of humans is the nature of the 'self 
or constitution which is at stake: in humans it is, ultimately, a self defined 
by the asymmetricai relationship of the mind to the body it commands. 

For the irresistible character of what one takes to be to one's own 
benefit, compare Epict. Diss. 1.18.6; this applies even if what seems to be 
reasonable to do is suicide (see Diss. 1.2.3). 

121. 18 Seneca here presents a teleological argument (paralleled in D.L. 
7.85-6) for the existence of a universal inclination to self-preservation. 
Nature's rationality as a guiding force is assumed: a well-organized nature 
does not lead to the creation of entities which will not survive and so 
each is endowed with the skilis essential to survival. Such a system would 
be self-defeating and so both irrational and unstable. This theme, which 
can be traced back at least to the Great Myth in Plato's Protagoras, 
is well attested in Stoicism and important in Cicero's account of Stoic 
natural philosophy in N.D.2 (especially 2.34 and 2. 121-30). Seneca 
claims that the most efficient way of preserving an animal is to give it 
the skiils of self-preservation — and certainly this strategy would spare 
the providential deity the effort of constant intervention; it is at least 
instrumentally rational to structure the natural world and its components 
to be self-sustaining as far as possible. This section contains the core of an 

LETTER 121 343 

argument aiming to establish the naturalness of reason and the rationality 
of nature. The inborn fear of death invoked at the end of the section 
is meant to be nature's way of ensuring a sufficient level of motivation 
for survival; it is meant to be a means by which the survival mechanism 
operates rather than an independent natural motivation; on a hedonist 
scheme, there would be a natural fear of painful death, and one can imagine 
a elever hedonist interlocutor exploiting Seneca's statement here, but the 
point is not made. 

That young animals recognize their predators without learning tells us 
something about animal self-awareness. A threat is only a threat relative 
to oneself, so if an animal sees something as a threat, there must be an 
implicit grasp of at least some of its own traits and dispositions. See on 
121. 21 below. 

i2i. 18 'previous letters'. We don't seem to have these letters, though 
roughly similar material is mentioned at 82.15 and 116. 3. Either there 
are letters missing within the collection rather than just at the end of it 
(see Introduction p. xiii) or this is an example of dramatic verisimilitude, 
Seneca creating the illusion of a real correspondence by referring to letters 
not in the collection. 

121. 18-19 'recognize what is threatening'. This is a point also made by 
Hierocles at Ethike Stoicheiosis, col. III, 11. 19-52. 

121. 19-20 In response to the example in i2i.i8ofbirds whoknow their 
natural enemies from the moment of birth, the interlocutor queries how 
such knowledge is possible. This is either a challenge to the claim that 
the nestlings really do have such skill or an implicit suggestion that the 
Stoics would need some form of innate knowledge of external threats, an 
epistemology which they would have to reject. 

Seneca replies by distinguishing the faet from explanation of it; compare 
121. 13 and the distinction of knowing that something is and knowing its 
defintion. Both distinctions (between knowing et esti and ti esti and knowing 
hoti and knowing dioti) are fundamental in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. 

121. 19 Seneca's first basis for claiming that this understanding does exist 
among animals is sophisticated: 'that they actually do have this under- 
standing is obvious from the faet that they would not do anything more if 


they did understand.' This is a complicated bit of inference, which seems 
to work like this. The nestlings display the self-preservatory behaviour 
at issue. Either the nestlings have the relevant understanding or they do 
not. Assume that the nestlings do not have the relevant understanding 
(and nevertheless display the behaviour). Then, add the understanding to 
their set of dispositions. This won't add to their behavioural competence, 
since they already displayed the behaviour without the understanding. 
But then we have the puzzling outcome that the relevant kind of under- 
standing when present has no causal or explanatory force. That is absurd. 
Hence we reject the initial assumption that the nestlings lack the relevant 
understanding while still having the behaviour. 

Providing that we accept the claim that the nestlings display the relevant 
behaviour, this is an attractive argument. In effect, it is a dialectical 
version of inference to the best explanation (which is what the relevant 
understanding would be), the only response to which would be a better 
candidate explanation (which the opponent cannot presumably offer). For 
if there were a better explanation, the 'puzzling outcome' stated above 
would cease to be puzzling. 

Seneca goes on to give more examples meant to demonstrate animals' 
natural grasp of self-preservatory facts about their relationship with other 
species. Even with adult animals, such as hens, Seneca claims that the grasp 
of a threat is not derived solely from external experience. Though a hen 
has had abundant time to learn which species are dangerous and which not, 
he urges that the predators are recognized as such both without specific 
experience ('not even familiar to them') and in contradiction to plausible 
inference (they naturally fear the smaller animal, while one might expect 
them to fear larger animals). More plausible is the case of a chick which fears 
cats, not dogs (Seneca clearly does not know that dogs often attack poultry). 
That young animals 'display caution before they get the experience' may 
be explicable on other grounds or may even be wrong, but the claim is in its 
ancient context reasonably plausible and important to Seneca's argument. 

121.20 It is also important to rule out chance as the cause of successful 
avoidance behaviours. Two factors are invoked. First, there is a good 
match between the threats which animals avoid and their actual predators. 
If chance were the cause, we would surely find examples of animals 
fearing objectively non-threatening species. (This would also be the case 
if the cause were a generalized avoidance behaviour pattern rather than 
one targeted at specific threats and so requiring a grasp of oneself in 
comparison to particular threats.) Second, chance is ruled out by the 

LETTER 121 345 

consistency of the behaviour: something which is consistently the case is 
treated as non-accidental. On chance see also 120.4. 

Seneca also adds a further consideration against the possibility that 
learning and experience are the basis for threat-avoidance behaviour: 
behaviours learned from experience allegedly intensify over time, gradually 
building up from a pattern of varied behaviours as the unsuccessful ones 
are discarded and the successful ones retained. The uniformity and 
immediacy of a trait point to its naturalness. This consideration would 
have some weight even if the behaviour were not present from birth but 
is obviously stronger if combined with that consideration. 

121. 21 Having argued that animals have an awareness of their own con- 
stitutions, Seneca turns to the reason why as a separate point. That a pre- 
experiential and unlearned grasp of which species are predators requires 
a comparison of one's own nature with that of other species was implicit 
(see 121. 18 above). The development of this point here is very sketchy: 
awareness of the nature of one's own flesh gives one the basis for knowledge 
about threats. Obviously this is far too schematic and will not explain why 
different animals fear different predators (such as chicks fearing cats rather 
than dogs: 121. 19 above). There is no sign that Seneca was interested in 
this level of detail; not even Hierocles does much with this point. 

'Whatever nature taught ... '. Following on 121.20 Seneca treats inborn 
knowledge as something 'taught' by nature. This is apparently a metaphor, 
but if one assumes that nature's activities are uniform across species and 
invariant through the life of an animal, it would follow from this claim that 
all animals at all stages of life have an awareness of their own constitution, 
which is the theme of the quaestio. In 120.4 nature is said to give us only 
the seeds of knowledge about virtue; there is no incompatibility between 
the emphasis there on the need of experience to acquire the concept of 
goodness and the emphasis here on the completeness of nature's teachings 
about oneself. It is quite reasonable that complex experience (subjected to 
analysis) should be needed for some things and not for others. 

121. 22-3 A return to the 'skilP argument. The spider is an excellent 
example of innate skill which must be regarded as natural since there is no 
opportunity for teaching (and also no variability, which is a mark of what 
is taught by art and so not natural). In 121. 19-23 Seneca relies on the 
argument that if something is natural it can be assumed to be consistent, 
but this point seems to come in a stronger and weaker version. In the 


strong version, naturalness entails that a trait is present across one's entire 
life and hence present from birth. This is a dubiously over-strong claim. 
Some natural traits obviously emerge during one's life and are uniform in 
a weaker sense — present at the same stage in the life of every member of 
the species and essentially invariant in degree so that the trait is present in 
full force if at all. This weaker formulation seems to be what lies behind 
the last sentence of 121.20. The stronger formulation seems to be implied 
by 121.23, which seems to assume that the endowments of nature are all 
and only those traits present at birth and that all later developments are 
learned. This is needless hyperbole and implausible, but Seneca's general 
stance requires the sharpest possible contrast between nature and learning. 
The motivation for exaggeration is evident. 

121. 22-4 'sophisticated' in 121.22 is subtilitets; 'skilled' in 121.24 reflects 
sollertia (cf. Pliny, Nat. 8.33 and callent at 8.91). Ancient authors often 
advert to the natural skill and cleverness of animals and have a variety of 
reasons for doing so, most often to demonstrate the pro viden tial ordering of 
the natural world. See especially Plutarch's treatise De Sollertia Animalium. 
For wide-ranging discussion of ancient views about animal rationality see 
Sorabji 1993. 

121.24 A return to the argument from teleological coherence (see on 
121. 18 above and D.L. 7.85-6); nature does not produce animals without 
the means of basic survival (though a forgetful Epimetheus manages to 
do that to humans in Plato's Protagoras). This is one of the strongest 
arguments for the innateness of the self-preservative instinct (the 'attach- 
ment to and love for oneself). Its relationship to the specific theme of 
self-awareness is indirect: self-preservation is impossible without self- 
awareness and so a demonstration of complex self-preserving behaviours 
is an argument for self-awareness. 

Commentary on 122 

General: this letter carries on the theme of what is natural for humans (120, 
121), which is also linked to the discussion of species-relative good (120, 
124). The tone in 122 is less rigorously philosophical than in most of the 

LETTER 122 347 

letters in this collection, more akin to the social critique of much Latin satire 
(in particular Horace); hence the abundance of anecdotes and Seneca's 
evident pleasure in developing them. In philosophical terms, though, 
particular emphasis is placed on the naturalness of living an appropriately 
active life, of following the temporal regimen which is natural for human 
beings, and of avoiding behaviour motivated by greed and the desire 
for notoriety. Hijmans (1976: 160-6, esp. 160- 1) emphasizes the close 
thematic connections between 122 and the surrounding letters, 121 and 
123. (In this he confirms the general approach taken by Cancik 1967 
and Maurach 1970 to the grouping of the letters.) The themes of death 
and darkness are particularly resonant across this set of letters. 

I gratefully acknowledge some very helpful comment from Margaret 
Graver and James Ker on the translation and from the discussion of 122 
in ch. 5 of Ker 2002. 

Thematic division 








The unnatural character of life for nocturnal people. 

The cause of this is a general tendency to reject nature. 

Illustrations of unnatural ways of life. 

An illustrative anecdote. 

The causes revisited; among other things, nocturnals desire 


Another illustrative anecdote. 

The multiformity of vice and simplicity of virtue. 

The desire for notoriety again. 

122. 1 'more responsible' translates officiosior. Officium is the standard 
translation for kathekon, so the phrase also suggests 'better at carrying out 
appropriate actions'. 

'get ahead of the day'. Ker 2002: 236 suggests that it is primarily social 
duties which can be fulfilled best by early risers (Juvenal 8.1 1 ff connects 
sleeping in the daytime with various forms of social irresponsibility), but 
the officia extend beyond the social sphere (as one would expect from 
the generality of kathekonta). The theme of action vs passivity is being 

122.2—3 'functions of day and night'. These too are officia. The idea 
is that there is a natural fitness of day for certain functions and of night 


for others, at least for our species. To live otherwise is to be a different 
kind of animal — an Antipodean — and in 121 Seneca has just emphasized 
that our proper way of life is dermed by our nature, as is also the case for 
other species. Nature's Antipodeans (the ones whom Vergil says were put 
in their distinctive location by nature) live in a manner which would be 
backwards for us, although the literary tradition (see most recently Ker 
2002: 247-50 and nn.) treats Antipodeans as straightforwardly unnatural. 
Seneca's point here is that what is normal for natural Antipodeans is 
unnatural for antipodean humans. 

On the species-defmed nature of the good, see also 124.21 -4. Hence 
the basic idea of species-relative function determining goodness of activity 
(NB melior in 122. 1) is reflected here. In 3.6 Seneca noted that day and 
night are determined by nature. 

122.3 The maxim of Cato is also exploited by Cicero at Fin. 2.23, 
connecting temporal inversions with economic waste (compare the anec- 
dote at Athenaeus 6.273). Here it underlines the comparison between 
the non-human Antipodeans and perverted human antipodeans. (For an 
extended discussion of the Antipodeans, see Ker 2002: 251-5.) The lives 
of antipodean humans are unnatural in their function. Failure to know the 
right time for action is an indicator of not knowing what actions are appro- 
priate for their lives. The contrast between life and death is meant to map 
onto the contrasts between day and night and between activity and pas- 
sivity. (The play on life and death is similar to passages at 77.18 and 82.2.) 

Seneca does not consider the possibility that one might exhibit a pattern 
of activity suitable for humans but conduct it nocturnally. Hijmans 1976: 
162, for example, notes å propos of 122. 1 that 'Seneca does not point out 
that strictly speaking this [awaiting the day before it starts, making use of 
part of the night for one's activities] is no more naturam sequi than is dining 
at night.' It is open to question, of course, whether human nature is, in 
faet, so narrowly constrained in its time relations — is the human species 
hardwired to be diurnal rather than nocturnal (as we tend to think on 
allegedly scientific grounds)? Or is that an imposition of culture? Sextus 
Papinius, at 122. 15-16 presented as a prime example of someone whose 
life inverts day and night, seems to have no difficulty carrying out the 
normal functions of his life on the inverted timescale; he seems otherwise 
to live a quite 'natural' life, not squandering the night on corrupt luxurious 
pursuits as others do. 

The end of 122.3 niakes the role of activity (actus) in a human life 
explicit and central: it is the point of life and the proof that the life lived 

LETTER 122 349 

is genuinely important. Like Aristotle, the Stoics think that action is the 
expression of human nature because it is our natural function (ergon). 
The officium language here invokes kathekon again. 'Indication' translates 

The teleological foundation of ethics is apparent here and is used as a 
criterion for assessing particular lifestyle choices. Maximizing action in 
our life is to maximize our scope for achieving merit and then displaying 
it, and so 122.3 closes with a reference back to the shifting balance of 
night/day with the change of seasons. Just as in 122. 1 we are reminded 
that the ratio of night-to-day changes throughout the year, so too here 
we contemplate having more day than night — but now we know why 
this would be such a good idea: it would help us fulfil our nature as 
acting animals. Seneca does not here consider that exploiting night might 
provide greater scope for action. The case of Sextus Papinius (122. 15-16) 
should make us wonder about this claim. See too Ker 2002: ch. 5, esp. 
255 fif. on the productive use of night, lucubratio. Compare also 60.4 on 
the animal-like character of inert people devoted to pleasures of the flesh. 

'Feast of the Dead'. The Roman festival Parentalia. 

122.4 Birds caged for fattening are the paradigm of inactivity and so 
of the perversion of the ideal of an active life. That they are caged in 
darkness is particularly apt for the theme of this letter as it connects 
darkness, inactivity, and excessive consumption. This is a grim but 
effective comparison for nocturnal human lifestyles. Cf. De Providentia 
2.6 and De Beneficiis 4.1 3.1. 

The comparison of mental blindness to the inability to use one's eyes 
in the dark underlines the naturalness of daytime functioning for human 
beings. The faet that our eyes function best in daylight shows that we 
are made for daytime activity. This addresses, in a very oblique way, the 
question raised above å propos of 122.3 whether there is an objective basis 
for the claim that our natural activity is diurnal. 

For the comparison to birds, see also Plin. Nat. 18.4-5; Ker 2002: 
240-2 is particularly good on Roman attitudes to nocturnal creatures and 
activities. On the unhealthy quality of creatures deprived of the light, see 
Seneca NQ_ 3.19.2 on night birds. 

'puffup ... '. The text is problematic here. Superba umbra, which is the 
text of the mss, is translated 'in their self-satisfied retirement' in the Loeb 
edition. Following Reynolds f regard the phrase as corrupt. 


122.5 Seneca strongly asserts an intrinsic connection between perversion 
in our actions and in our management of time. The 'proper order of things' 
is ambiguous between actions and times and it is a challenge to find in 
Seneca's rant anything more compelling than guilt by association. What is 
rectum is contrasted with what is perversum (straight vs. twisted) — these 
are powerful metaphors not weakened by their familiarity (see below 
on 122.17); but tne y amount to little more than a reassertion of the 
naturalness of our common cultural conventions. Seneca's readiness to 
treat majoritarian convention as a sign of what is natural contrasts with 
his attitude elsewhere, especially (as Ker 2002: 244 argues effectively) in 
120.20— 1. 

122.6-9 provide examples of unnatural behaviour which are meant to 
reinforce our acceptance of the conventional understanding of the 'proper 
order of things'. See Ker 2002: 242, esp. n. 17. In 122.6 Seneca criticizes 
the unnaturalness of drinking on an empty stomach, which is a matter 
of the 'order' of things in that normally one eats before or while drinking 
alcohol. The proper order of things in the world indicates that wine is 
an accompaniment of food and that its officium is not to get the drinker 
drunk. Compare 15.3 and 88.19. 'occupies a vacuum' in 122.6 is both 
literal and metaphorical: the stomach is empty and so is the life of the 
drinker who abuses alcohol in this way. In 122.7 transvestism, traditionally 
a signal example of unnatural behaviour, is associated with the 'passive' 
homosexuality; this attitude is common in Roman moralizing; e.g., Plin. 
Nat. 1178, Suet. Cai. 52. But the connection of this to distorted time 
relations is achieved only with considerable strain by invoking the further 
social prejudice that such a role is age-inappropriate, a matter of retaining 
some traits of boyhood beyond an appropriate stage of life. In 122.8 the 
example of flowers out of season (for late roses cf Hor. Carm. 1.38.3-4, 
Mart. 6.80.2) involves an obvious distortion of temporal propriety, but 
the other examples (ornamental trees in unusual piaces, seaside swimming 
pools) involve only 'perversions' of what Roman traditionalists thought of 
as natural spatial relations. For rooftop forests and comparable symptoms 
of needless luxury, see De Ira 1.21.1, 89.21. Suet. Nero 31 reacts with 
similar indignation to the perceived excesses of Nero's magnificent house 
(the domus aurea) in Rome. (For a similar rant against luxury by Fabianus, 
whom Seneca admired, see Seneca the Elder's Controversiae 2.1. 10- 13.) 
In 122.9 tne reversal of activities between day and night is presented 
as a culmination of unnaturalness. As presented by Seneca, this seems 
implausible, but it was apparently common to some degree: for Tacitus, 

LETTER 122 35 1 

the courtier Petronius' life was characterized by just this sort of inversion 
(Annals 16.18); Seneca avoids contemporary examples from Nero's court 
and in 122.10 ff. limits himself to famous characters from the court of 
Tiberius, now safely in the past. 

That the cause of such twisted behaviour is the desire to do something 
unique anticipates the causal analysis in 122.14. F° r tne avoidance of what 
'everyone' does, see 7.6, where following the crowd is a sign of weakness 
and corruption; see also 123.6 on the mistake of living by the example of 
others. Seneca's acceptance here of cultural convention as indicative of a 
natural order is uncritical by comparison with 123.6. Only the teleological 
argument based on the function of the eyes (122.4) seems so far to go any 

122.6 'build up their strength'. The Bude translation punctuates dif- 
ferently and interprets the phrase qui vires excolunt differently. 'C'est 
pourtant une extravagance fréquente, chez les jeunes amateurs de culture 
physique, d'attendre presque d'étre au seuil de la piscine pour boire... ' 
It makes an interesting difference in the social comment but is of minimal 
philosophical import. On the present interpretation, the dissolute youths 
strengthen themselves, that is, deliberately build up their tolerance for 
alcohol, so that they can drink in the overheated atmosphere of the bath- 
house (which would normally be risky and unhealthy behaviour), all so 
that they can promptly clean off the sweat produced by heavy drinking. 

122.9 'defect from nature'. Compare 90.19 a natura luxuria descivit. 

122. 10 The connection of night with death is exploited again here in this 
brief anecdote about Acilius Buta (otherwise unknown); the story, set in 
elite society of Rome during the reign of Tiberius, suggests that somehow 
time inversion is intimately linked to spendthrift tendencies. 

'untimely funeraP. Normally this phrase (funus acerbum) refers to a 
premature death (OLD s.v. acerbus 4), but here it is also bitter and 
'untimely' because the funeral is held at night rather than at the normal 
time during the day. 

122.11-13 This extension of the story about Buta is rather gossipy 
and long-winded, and seems designed only to support the point that 
Buta's inverted lifestyle was notorious and also widespread at the time. 
(Again, the connection of time inversions to moral corruption is tenuously 


associative at best.) This hardly seems like an important enough point to 
justify the length of the anecdote. Seneca's competitive literary spirit is in 
play here as well (the derivative literary clichés used to mark the passage of 
time in epic were often ridiculed). The timing suggests as much — Seneca 
would have been a rising young literary lion at the time of this and the next 
anecdote (several of these literary gentlemen feature in the Controversiae 
of Seneca's father and the setting for the anecdotes is clearly Tiberian in 
date). For parodic accounts of sunrise see Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 2.3-4. 

122. 1 1 Julius Montanus was a poet also known from Seneca the Elder's 
Controversiae J-1-2J. For Pinarius Natta, a protegé of Sejanus, cf Tacitus, 
Annals 4.34.5. 

' "sunrise" to "sunset" ' There is a double entendre here; it means 'all day' 
(sunrise to sunset taken literally) and also 'for a very short time' (that is, 
from an occurrence of a phrase for 'sunrise' in his poem to an occurrence 
of a phrase for 'sunset') — the expressions which were most frequently 
and pointlessly repeated. 

122.12 For Quintilius Varus cf. Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 1.3. 10. 
The Vinicius mentioned here is Marcus, the son of the Publius mentioned 
at 40.9; see also Controversiae 2.5.20 and Annals 6.15. I follow the Bude 
edition on the prosopography. 

122.13 'daily visit'. The formal visit (salutatio) to one's patron occurred 
in the morning. 

122.14 Seneca offers his views on the underlying reason {causa) for this 
inverted behaviour pattern. It is appropriate for a Stoic to situate the cause 
for a character defect in an attitude which is subject to conscious control 
and so rationally correctable; the failing is not just a stubbornly defective 
character trait. The erroneous attitudes which generate the perverted 
behaviour are (1) a desire to avoid the ordinary (see 122.9 above); (2) the 
desire to avoid acknowledging in the light of day behaviour for which one 
is ashamed; (3) a lust for conspicuous consumption — daylight is free and 
the consumption of artificial light is a sign of wealth; (4) a narcissistic 
desire to be the object of gossip. 

'conscience' translates conscientia. It is better not to follow Grimal (1981: 
194-5) m inflating the philosophical significance of this phrase. It is 

LETTER 122 353 

common in Latin literature, though it occurs unusually often in Seneca. 
At 1 17. i the word designates the sense of integrity which Seneca retains 
even while disagreeing with his own school. 

122. 15-16 The story of Sextus Papinius (for whose identity see Griffin 
1992: 48, n. 4) as told by Pedo (the author of an epic poem on Thebes 
quoted by Seneca's father, Suas. 1.15). Curiously, the present story 
emphasizes only the day/night inversion of Sextus and his stinginess, and 
does not add to it other evidence of personal perversion, unless that is the 
point of the Strange joke about consuming lamp oil. See below. 

'daylight avoiders' (lucifugae). The connotation is 'secretive, anti-sociaP. 
See Cicero Fin. 1.61 . Clearly there is a double entendre here, since the literal 
meaning is properly applicable as well. 'daylight-shy' is what Campbell 
says in the Penguin. 'Hommes-blattes' in the Bude, which also refers to a 
similar character in Cic. Sest. 9.20. 

On doing the accounts and getting angry, cf. De Ira 3.33.3; doing 
accounts at night, Petr. 53 (Ker 2002: 253). 

122.16 'porridge'. For its role as an appetizer, see Plin. Ep. 1.15.2 and 
Mart. 13.6. 

'consumed nothing except the night' . . . 'lives on lamp oil'. The term 
lychnobius is an apparent coinage from Greek. The main question is 
whether living on lamp oil is meant as a sign of stinginess or extravagance. 
Notwithstanding the note in Summers (1910: 356, followed by Ker 2002: 
254, n. 53), who suggests a pun on lichnos, the issue is not easily resolved. 
The Penguin translation gives 'artificial-light addict' as a translation, sug- 
gesting that the word entails a charge of extravagance. If consuming lamp 
oil rather than using daylight (which is free) is meant to be a sign of extrav- 
agance, then the connection of excess with time inversions which Seneca 
is asserting (often feebly) throughout this letter would be confirmed. 

But it is hard not to suspect that Pedo's quip is ironic, and that Papinius 
was simply a misguided miser — someone for whom the only extravagance 
would be lamp oil; Varro, in his Menippean Satires (fr. 573), regards saving 
oil for night work (lucubratio, on which see Ker who regards it as the 
opposite of the light-fleeing perversions Seneca attacks in this letter) as 
a sign of frugality: otherwise the oil would be poured wastefully over a 
plate of asparagus. The Bude edition has a particularly helpful note on 
this difficult point; it suggests that among other passages Horace's Satire 


i. 6. 1 24 is relevant. A decisive resolution of this problem probably requires 
specific information about the characters which Seneca's audience would 
have had and that we cannot recover. 

122.17 The role of consistency in virtue and the natural. That vice is 
twisted and manifold while virtue is straight and simple is a familiar idea; 
see also LS 47S, 71 .20, and 66.32. But for the purposes of Seneca's claims in 
this letter about what is natural, it is more important that Seneca stresses 
the restricted range of what follows nature: exiguas differentias habent. 
The association of the natural with a small set of highly focussed and 
functionally defined patterns of behaviour is maintained here. One may, 
of course, challenge the intellectual foundations of this central ancient 
teleological notion, but in the present context we should perhaps be 
principally concerned about Seneca's proneness to take social convention 
as an indication of naturalness. 

'deviations'. The Latin term is declinationes, literally fallings-off. In 
grammar this is the term for declensions, and in geography the term for 
latitudes or regions of the earth. 

122. 18- 19 In conclusion, Seneca reverts to his analysis of the underlying 
cause for such unnatural behaviour: the yearning for notoriety. Seneca 
brings together the vices of temporal inversion with those of conspicuous 
displays of excess by treating both as caused by a craving for attention 
from society. (On the display of richly adorned vehicles, see also 87.4-9.) 
That a yearning for social approval should be a cause of vicious behaviour 
is not surprising. Doxa, in the sense of reputation, is one of the external 
preferred indifferents (along with wealth and high birth) at D.L. 7.106. 
Furthermore, Stoic theory specified social influences as one of the two 
causes of corruption for naturally rational animals (D.L. 7.89). Here the 
damage done to character by our social milieu is highlighted. It is the 
desire to be seen in a certain way by other people that pries us away from 
our natural function and behaviour patterns. 

'follow nature ... unimpeded'. In 112. 19 (as in 122.17) emphasis is placed 
on the easy and unimpeded quality of the life according to nature. The 
language is clear: faciles, soluti, facilia, expedita. According to Aristotle, 
pleasure is or accompanies an 'unimpeded activity' (anempodistos energeia: 
EN 7, ii53ai5, bio-11). Compare the sense of ease represented in the 
Stoic ideal of eurhoia biou, the smooth flow of life. 

LETTER 123 355 

Commentary on 123 

Thematic division 

1-4: The interdependence of active labour and appetite. Func- 
tional simplicity as applied to food. 
5: Testing one's character by unexpected circumstance. 
6-7: Custom and the example of others corrupt our values. 
8- 1 1: This is reinforced by the way people speak about values, 

even about philosophical values. 
12-14: An approach to character improvement which is resistant 

to the seductions of shallow philosophical argument. 
15-17: Even Stoic philosophers are not free of risk — some of their 
doctrines lead to moral risk. 

123. 1 The opening anecdote focusses on Seneca's ability to find a good 
outcome in an unpleasant situation. Internal conversation on the matter 
here stands in contrast to the risks one runs when listening to external 
speech, a topic he raises later in the letter at 123. 8-17. Seneca makes it 
clear that he has made sufficient progress in philosophy that his internal 
discourse has a considerable measure of reliability, whereas outside voices, 
whether philosophical or not, are less dependable. 

'make it worse by getting upset all on your own'. It is normal Stoic 
doctrine that there are no external grounds for emotional disturbance; 
external factors are indifferents, worth attention but not grounds for being 
upset, which is the result of a decision subject to one's own control. 
The added opinion as the source of real upset is initially an Epicurean 
idea (see D.L. 10.59, 62), but it is also prominent in Stoic discussions of 
passions (that of Epictetus quoted in Gellius io.i=fr. 10 Schenkl). This 
is important since Stoic views on the passions come up again later in this 

123.2 Another idea shared by, among others, Epicureans and Stoics is 
that the natural demands of the body are minimal. The function of food 
is to quell hunger, and so there is good sense in awaiting its natural 
stimulus, hunger, before passing judgement on the value of available food. 
This helps us to avoid socially reinforced 'fussiness' and luxury. The 
general idea is also homespun wisdom, but cf. also 78.22. For Epicurus, 
see Ep. Men. 130- 1. 'Fussiness' (fastidium) is a persistent concern of 
Seneca; see, e.g., repeated references in 58, 66.25, 118. 5, 119. 15-16, 


123.3 Seneca outlines the reason why he thinks it is necessary to train 
oneself on simple food and in so doing supplies a positive, non-morbid 
motivation for an ascetic approach to life. Circumstances are uncertain and 
unreliable for everyone (even for someone in Seneca's station in life, see 
123. 1) and it is taken for granted that our habits shape our preferences and 
disposition. That being so, one cannot rely on being consistently at ease in 
one's attitudes and passions if one has become attached to more than the 
minimum. But being attached only to the functional minimum requires 
training. The tranquil attitude and freedom from passions described here 
is, of course, libertas. Hence the last line of 123.3. F° r a similar line 
of thought see 18.3. The opening paragraphs of 87 also deal with this 

On the psychological process of adjusting to want, see 78. 11- 12. 
The phrase 'get used to modest food' (assuescere parvo) may be intended 
as an allusion to Vergil, Georgia 2.472. 

'circumstances of time and place ... '. Here the text is corrupt and there 
is no obviously right emendation. 

123.4 The simple, natural, and functional relationship between hunger 
and food is paralleled by that between the fatigue produced by hard work 
and rest. Seneca emphasizes the second-order pleasure he takes in being 
aware of having dispositions of which he approves upon reflection. This 
is comparable to Epicurean mental pleasures or, perhaps, to Stoic chara 
(the eupatheia which is the positive counterpart of hedorie); cf. 23.1-8, 

123.5 Seneca again reflects on his own internal disposition and his 
progress in character building. The 'test' or 'triaP of his own character has 
come without warning (he could not have anticipated the situation at his 
estate). Advance warning of hardship provides an opportunity to command 
oneself, and so one's response is less revealing of underlying, long-term 
dispositions. (On self-command, see Inwood 'The Will in Seneca', ch. 5 of 
Inwood 2005. ) As suggested above, the benefit of becoming accustomed 
to wanting little is simply that one's freedom from upset becomes stable 
in one's character and is therefore operative even when one has no chance 
to prepare oneself. On the value of the impromptu as an indication of 
character, see also Aristotle, EN 3, 1117817—22. 

This section makes it clear that Seneca is thinking of the passions 
when he considers our reactions to not getting what we want. At the end 

LETTER 123 357 

of this section we return to the demands of nature in contrast to what 
we are habituated to. In order to resist the attitudes which accompany 
our habits we must actively seek out what is natural (including naturally 
occurring events which are 'dispreferred' for humans and train ourselves 
to get used to it). This letter, then, is a manifesto on the moral Utility of 
a training in ascetism, even for a wealthy person; it rests on views shared 
by Epicureans and Stoics alike as well as by other schools (such as the 

123.6 The sources of error are habit (the affluent routinely have more 
than they need and so fail to learn the difference between natural 
need and habitual surplus) and social custom. Excessive integration 
into social customs (living by the example of others) undermines our 
sense of what is really natural. To 'live by the example of others' is 
a fault Seneca often criticizes (see De Vita Beata 1.3-4, 81.29, 99.17, 
and see on 119. 15-16 and 122.6-9,122.18-19). Critical and indepen- 
dent analysis of our nature and its needs leads to a settled character 
(ratione componimur), but we are deceived by an uncritical acceptance 
of ideas and behaviours that are standard in our society. In 122 Seneca 
relies on social convention to support the view that a diurnal rather 
than a nocturnal lifestyle is natural; however, he does have a few 
independent arguments in favour of the naturalness of daytime activ- 

'honourable . . . common'. For the Socratic rejection of common opinions 
as a criterion for moral decisions, see Crito 44C~48d. 

123.7 'phalanx of runners' etc. These examples of excess are reminiscent 
of other passages in Seneca. See esp. 87.9 for the runners, but also 
119. 3, Ben. 7.9.3, Tranq. An. 1.7 for glassware and silver; the references 
could be multiplied many times over. Note as well the allusion to the 
natural and functional in contrast to the merely cosmetic at the end of 

123.8- 1 1 There is a kind of casual conversation with ordinarily vicious 
people that has a serious negative effect on us. Note the interest in the 
subtle way bad values can seep into our character via a delayed reaction to 
corrupt talk (the metaphor of a seed is used), and the lingering allure of 
such voices — the musical example here looks ahead to the allusion to the 
Sirens in 123.12. But the culmination of Seneca's treatment of corrrupting 


'talk' is the pseudo-philosophical argument of 123.10-11, which uses 
rhetorical techniques to urge us on to vice and self-indulgence; they tend 
to make us dependent on the objects of our contingent desires rather than 
be independent of the external things which are unreliable even in the 
lives of the wealthiest man. 

123.10 'helping out with someone else's life'. The phrase is reminiscent 
of Thrasymachus' comparably cynical appeal to rational self-interest in 
Republic 1, 343C3, where justice is referred to as 'someone else's good' 
(allotrion agathon). 

'life which cannot be reclaimed'. An allusion to Vergil. See Aeneid 10.467 
and Georgia 3.284;. also 108.24. 

'What good does it do ...?' The rhetorical question is a hortatory cliché. 
Cf 78.14, 109.17. 

'Get ahead of death and ... '. The text is corrupt here. The Loeb editor 
prints an emendation sine tibi interire, which would yield: 'allow to be 
wasted on yourself whatever death will take away.' 

123. 11 'to take care of your heir's estate'. The alleged folly of parsimony 
intended to make one's heirs more prosperous is perhaps an allusion to 
Horace, Epistle 1.5. 13. 

'Don't give a damn . . . '. An allusion to Catullus 5.2. 

123. 11 The reference to good reputation at the climax of this 'speech' 
reminds us that opinio is an object of explicit contention in these letters. 
Here the 'corrupt' adviser dismisses the value of social approval even as he 
argues for a set of preferences which themselves bear the stamp of social 
approbation. Generally held views can be invoked to help stabilize good 
character (as in 122) but can also lead to moral error — as in this letter. 
The critical move is to invoke our nature as rational animals in order to 
separate the wheat from the chaff on all these issues. 

123. 12- 14 This imagined argument for self-interest provokes Seneca's 
response. (1) Resist the Sirens — that is, avoid the corrupting speech of 
allegedly philosophical persuaders who stand in opposition to friends, 
family, and generally accepted virtues (this responds to 123.8- 11 and so 
takes a position on the value of opinio). Seneca no doubt thinks that a set 
of value preferences is secure when critical reflection about our nature 

LETTER 123 359 

converges with such publicly statable values. The end of 123.12 refers to 
the challenge of changing our characters so that only the honourable (i.e., 
only what meets this criterion) is satisfying (the Latin term is iucunda, 
pleasant). He envisages, then, a transformation of our entire motivational 
structure. Compare Aristotle EN 10.5, ii76ai5-22, and 3.6 ni3ai6 
ff. for the idea that what seems pleasant to the spoudaios is what is 
truly pleasant. In EN 2.6-9 tne niean state to which one must aspire 
in order to be virtuous is the mean state as defined by the phronimos 

'entice you into a life which is shameful . . . '. Here I follow the emendation 
proposed by Shackleton-Bailey 1970: 356 (in turpem vitam miseramque si 
turpis illiciunt); the manuscripts are corrupt here. 

123.13 The key to this training process is critical reflection on our 
motivations. There are things which attrået us and things which repel 
us. We must learn how to resist both so that we are not compelled by 
the contingent desires we feel; if we are not decisively affected by such 
contingent desires and preferences, then explicit analysis of the values 
of things can determine our choices. The principal way to effect this 
liberation from contingent desires is the kind of training in self-denial 
which Seneca advocates in this letter. Working against our pre-critical 
inclinations enables us to be free of passions; not only are we able to deal 
with misfortune when it comes (as it surely must) but it also leaves us in a 
position to make detached judgements about values. This letter does not 
devote any effort to discussion of the content of those judgements or the 
intellectual processes by which they might be reached. It focuses only on 
the preliminary work which makes them possible. 

123.14 Chrysippus used the example of a runner to illustrate the nature 
of passions as committed practical decisions which are out of our own 
cognitive control (Galen, On Hippocrates' and Plato's Doctrines 4.2.8-18 
= SVF 3.462 = LS 65J; for discussion, see Inwood 1985: ch. 5, esp. 
155—73 an d 'Seneca and Psychological Dualism', ch. 2 of Inwood 2005). 
Seneca uses this example elsewhere (see e.g., De Ira 1.7.4, 2 -35- 2 ) an d 
here he adapts the example to illustrate what he regards as a key fea- 
ture of character formation, the need to counteract our pre-existing 
inclinations and preferences if we are to have the opportunity to take 
full control of our mental lives. Aristotle, with a different underlying 
moral psychology, makes a similar point with a different metaphor in 


EN 2.9: at nogb6-7 he notes that we must bend sticks in the oppo- 
site direction if they are to become straight. However, Aristotle's claim 
is that the mean state can best be achieved by overcompensating for 
one excess by leaning towards the other. This is a matter of producing 
the appropriate disposition in the sub-rational part of the soul and so 
achieving what later Peripatetics cailed metriopatheia. For Seneca, the 
overt process may be similar but its underlying dynamics are different. 
Committed to a unitary model of the soul, he urges 'overcorrection', 
that is, denial of antecedent desires and preferences, as a way of detach- 
ing oneself from habits which would block the process of character 

The suggestion that Seneca is invoking parallel Stoic and Aristotelian 
strategies for moral education is supported by the faet that just as Seneca 
referred in 123.12 to Ulysses' confrontation with the Sirens, so Aristotle 
in EN 2.9 (no9a3i-3) invokes the advice of the nymph Calypso to the 
same hero. 

'going along with vice' {consentire). This indicates a more general stance 
than 'assent' (assentiri). 

123. 15- 17 This is a striking instance of Seneca's non-dogmatic readiness 
to be critical about his own school, although here it is not doctrines as such 
but those who exploit Stoic doctrine for ends which are as self-serving as 
those of the speakers imagined in 123.10-11. Sensitivity to pseudo-Stoics 
was apparently growing in the early Empire. 

Even among alleged Stoics there are philosophical topics that need to 
be resisted, and it is noteworthy that the views in question are Socratic 
in origin: that the wise man is the only true lover and the only one truly 
capable of drinking are deliberately paradoxical claims inspired by Plato's 
Symposium. (See Inwood 1997 and 'Politics and Paradox in Seneca's De 
Beneficiis', ch. 3 of Inwood 2005.) Seneca is often cautious about prema- 
ture enthusiasm for Socratic or Cynic defiance of convention; in this he is 
perhaps influenced by the Stoic Panaetius, for whom see 116. 5-6. Those 
who are not yet wise and stand on 'uncertain ground' in terms of their 
moral education should be more cautious with their desires than a sage 
can be. 

123.16 'concessions to Greek custom'. A familiar xenophobic pose by 
Seneca, exploiting a common Roman prejudice against customs marked 
as Greek. The positive use of Ulysses in this letter tempers the anti-Greek 

LETTER I23 361 

flavour. Seneca is not rejecting all Greek customs, but rather claiming that 
some doctrines (such as those on pederasty) are manifestly a concession to 
cultural contingency, adopted because of the way they relate to pleasure, 
and the main point of this letter is the need to resist prior and culturally 
contingent habits and preferences if progress in character reformation is 
to be possible. There are also Roman examples of such concessions, such 
as in this letter at 123.8- 11, which is set in a very Roman cultural context 
in contrast to this example of a particularly Greek custom. Seneca's point, 
then, is that if a 'philosophicaP theme is manifestly culturally relative, it 
may be a poor guide to what is natural. Seneca urges, in place of such 
culturally contaminated doctrines, that one attend to the list of topics and 
maxims in 123.16. Since these are maxims which go against most if not all 
cultures' values, Seneca's claim is that they are a far more reliable guide 
to what is natural. 

123.16 'no one is good by accident' just as no one can learn the concept 
of good by chance (120.4) Compare also 76.6, 95.39. See also 90.46 for 
the claim that 'virtue must be learned', but it is a standard Stoic view; the 
good man is a craftsman, and crafts must be learned. 

'worthless'. Pleasure, of course, is a preferred indifferent and not strictly 
speaking without value, but Seneca is urging that we correct for our 
normally excessive attachment to pleasure; hence the hyperbole. The wise 
person is the one to put the correct valuation on things: see esp. 66.6 
where nature rather than public opinion is said to be the proper basis for 
valuing things. 

123.17 The conclusion is explicit about the theme of the entire letter. 
There are risks in yielding to anyone else's opinions, even those of an 
alleged Stoic. One must learn to test even Stoic views against the standard 
of nature and the contrarian strategy of this letter demonstrates how to do 
it. Although Epicureans are not mentioned, it is apparent that their ideas 
on this matter reinforce Seneca's Stoic views on natural desires and on 
character formation. 

Commentary on 124 
I am grateful to Marta Jimenez for extended discussion of this letter. 


Thematic division 

1: The use and abuse of technicality. The quaestio: how do 
we grasp the good? 
2-5: Hedonism linked to the perceptibility of the good. Argu- 
ments against hedonism. 
6: Counterargument: there needs to be a self-evident empir- 
icai foundation for our concept of the happy life. 
7: This burden is met through the concept of the natural 
(which is held to be self-evident). The natural is not the 
newly born (see 121). 
8: Reason is a necessary condition for the good and knowledge 
9- 1 1: Classification of animals relative to reason and its emer- 
12: Description of the good, perfected reason. 
13-15: Relative good vs absolute good. 
16-20: The limitations of non-rational animals: no sense of time, 

no order liness of behaviour, etc. 
21-4: Moral Utility of this theory: mental training and proper 
understanding of our place in nature. 

The final letter of Book 20 returns to the themes of 118, 120, and 121, 
which deal with various aspects of the Stoic conception of the good. This 
theme is widespread in Seneca's letters (see also 106, 1 17, for example), but 
the prominence and concentration of the theme in Book 20 is striking. 106 
is not presented formally as a quaestio (despite hoc de quo quaeris in 106.3), 
but 117, 118, 120, and 121, as well as the present letter, are. Against the 
background of Seneca's presumed continuing progress on his treatise on 
moral philosophy, this group of letters is meant to be taken as a connected 
suite of explorations of the idea of the good. The epistemological theme of 
how we come to acquire this conception is prominent in 120 and 124. For 
an important contribution to understanding the Stoic conception of reason 
assumed by Seneca throughout this sequence of letters, see Frede 1994. 

124.1 ' ... justaslapprove ... '.Thetexthasbeenthoughttobedefective 
here, but one can, I think, allow for a certain casualness in expression 
which would not be out of place in a letter. 

The main quaestio is announced, after an introduction which uses a 
quotation from Vergil to put technical sophistication into perspective. 

LETTER I24 363 

Seneca attributes to Lucilius a balanced view about it which is probably 
his own position too. 118, 120, and 121 display a technicality which is 
clearly of relevance to ethics and these letters are not burdened with 
the defensive challenge to themselves that characterizes some of the 
more technical letters in earlier books. The benchmark for acceptability 
is made explicit here: it is required that the technicality contribute to 
'moral progress' in the Stoic sense (the Latin profectus is the translation 
for the Greek prokope). Seneca's view is that such progress requires 
mastery of doctrine in the areas of logic (which includes epistemology), 
physics (for a proper understanding of human nature and its relation 
to the natures of gods and non-rational animals as well as that of the 
cosmos), and ethics. The present letter touches on all three branches of 
philosophy. At 124.21 Seneca asks and answers the question about how 
the letter's discussion contributes to moral progress: it provides training 
benefits by sharpening the mind and also promotes motivational changes 
which are not possible without certain convictions about human nature. 
See below. 

The quaestio in this letter is epistemological. Is the good grasped by 
sense perception or reasoning? (Comprehendere suggests katalambanein, 
the Stoic term for the firm grasp which does not admit of error and which, 
when fully systematized, is the basis of knowledge.) The implications of 
the issue extend to physics, however: the way in which the good is known 
is connected to {adiunctum) the nature of non-rational animals (including 
children, see 121). For if the good is grasped by